Just because I spent quite a long time last night and this morning coming up with a response to this thread over at Minnescraper (which is a great forum for Twin Citians to check out), I figured I'd repost it here, along with a map I made of bus connections to/from the service as I mulled things over:
View Northstar connections in a larger map
I get pretty conflicted about the Northstar Line. It's not so much a failure itself as it is a product of a broken system that kills good ideas and rewards bad ones. The train basically does what it was designed to do—the ridership might be a bit below the target, but that misses the point that it was a nonsensical target in the first place. It isn't really designed to help people live without a car—the contrary: It was all about getting car-owning commuters into downtown with less delay. The Northstar is basically meant to be a dynamic extra lane for U.S. 10 that appears briefly in the morning and evening rush hours. It can be considered a success if it prevents Mn/DOT from expanding the highway, though I doubt they're going to be able to restrain themselves from doing so.
Questions about farebox recovery ratios and operational cost never really mattered, nor did mobility for individuals hampered by age, health, income, etc. If it had been designed as a train where people could walk to the stations, the stations themselves would have been in different locations. I always point at Elk River as the egregious violator, where the current stop is two miles from Main Street.
However, I do think the service can be molded into something that would more or less "work." Right now there are a handful of buses that connect to the line in Anoka, Coon Rapids, and Fridley, but there probably should be more. I'm not entirely sure how useful additional stations would be in Minneapolis itself, particularly since the huge Northtown Yard complex gets in the way. I could see a station going in at Lowry Ave or a bit further south near the Northrup King building, but neither of those make a whole lot of sense when there's the route 10 bus running along Central pretty frequently (it would be nice for people who live far out yet work in Northeast, but I'm not sure how many people do that).
I'd like to see the Elk River station moved two miles northwest into the center of town. Similarly, the Big Lake station should have been half a mile to a mile further west (though at least it's close enough to be within walking distance of a grocery and a few other things). The Coon Rapids station is also in a somewhat weird location, though I've always been stymied on how to get it placed somewhere better. However, I do believe that either the Foley Boulevard station should have been built (where there's currently a giant express bus park & ride) or a stop should have been put in a bit further south along 85th Ave, which would put it about 3/4 of a mile away from the transit center at Northtown Mall (a doable 15-minute hike if you wanted to walk, or a pretty easy bus route extension). Unfortunately 85th Ave is also relatively unpopulated due to an office/industrial park to the north and a nature center to the south, but the office park area does at least have a decent amount of land to redevelop if someone wanted to (though I suspect some of that may be semi-protected wetland...).
I've also pondered converting Northstar to an exclusively regional service by only having a single trainset in operation all day long, but making it run all the way from St. Cloud down to Minneapolis and back. For the same number of train-miles per day, the service could make three daily round-trips with a single crew over the course of about 9 hours. Add that to the Empire Builder, and you've basically got a 4x daily service to St. Cloud (albeit with two different termini in the Twin Cities). I figure it could be accomplished for around $20 million or less -- the main cost would be in restoring 9 miles of double-tracking to the line from Big Lake up to Becker. (The big problem with restoring the track is that it would be too close to intersections along U.S. 10 for Mn/DOT's current standards, so they want to spend many millions more to shift things around. Nevermind the fact that the tracks have been there for well over a century at this point, long before U.S. 10 became a divided highway.)