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Compass: Rural Public Transportation Systems

Compass: Rural Public Transportation Systems

(flute music) – [Announcer] The
following program is a production of
Pioneer Public Television. (flute music) (piano music) (upbeat music) (piano music) – Hello and welcome to Compass, a production of Pioneer
Public Television. I’m Les Heen, your
host for Compass. It’s a weekly discussion
of public policy, and important issues
facing our viewing area. This week, we’ll look
at public transportation in rural Minnesota,
including a look at how that transportation
system is changing to meet some new demands. First we have the story
of how one rural service, Prairie Five, is working to improve its reach and availability for Western
Minnesota communities. For more on Prairie
Five’s efforts, here’s a report from
Laura K. Prosser. – For rural residents,
public transit isn’t as easy as
walking down the street to the bus station,
or hailing a taxi cab. It’s easier. With Prairie Five
Rides picking them right up at their doorstep. The five county transit service has become a template for
rural public transportation that has its heart
in the community. Here’s their story. – So, Prairie Five
Community Action Council is a non-profit organization. We provide multiple
services throughout the five counties that we serve, which is where Prairie
Five to its name from. So back in the 80s, the
state and Prairie Five saw a need for
public transportation
within communities. There was a big push
for heartland services by the state and
Prairie Five was approached to start up a
volunteer driver program. And we started that
program with I think it was somewhere around $30,000 block grant that they got. And from there,
they’ve extended it into public transportation. So, creating the
public transportation is something that
is very difficult. Just because you
have to figure out what the need is
within the community. – [Laura] Prairie
Five has guidelines it has to meet, in order
to keep their funding. One of those
guidelines states that they have to have three
to four riders per hour. To meet those
standards, the business needs the help of volunteers. – For right now,
we have six cities that we operate buses in. So, it has to be a
resident that lives within the five counties or is
coming to the five counties, of Big Stone, Chippewa,
Lac Qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine. So, with our volunteer drivers, that allows us to go into
like, North and South Dakota, and throughout the
state of Minnesota. We go to Rochester. Twin Cities. We go to Saint Cloud. We go to Wilmer. And most of that is for like,
specialty clinics and stuff. To go to the Twin
Cities, we give rides Monday, Wednesday, Friday, if
there’s a need for that ride. And it was really
convenient for the riders. So, that’s kind of
why we did that. We’re a demand response,
so somebody calls, they need a ride, if we
have the resources to do it, and they live within
the five counties, then we give them the rides,
wherever they wanna go. – [Laura] Rural transit
still faces challenges. Including funding possibly
tapering off come 2020, due to the Transportation Bill. So Prairie Five has
had to get creative. And become not just a bus fleet, but a community
fleet complete with vans and volunteer drivers. – We started seven years
ago, when I started as a program manager, we
were doing about 50,000 ride. And now we’re doing
140,000 rides. So, we’re doing a lot more rides than we have in the past. Our volunteer driver
pool stays right around 30 to 35 volunteer drivers. And ultimately, we could use as many as we could possibly get. The vans and the
buses are really good as far as filling in the void
for community transportation. But when it comes
to those long rides to go to the Twin Cities
to get to the specialist, or go to Wilmer or
Saint Cloud and stuff, that’s where volunteer
drivers really fill that void. Kind of give that one
on one personal service. – [Laura] Rides
vary in pricing from $1.50 round trip, in town, to punch cards that get the
ride down to a dollar a ride. Ride fares like
these work to cover the match funding that the
organization has to meet to get and continue
their federal funding. – Also there is the
financial cost of maintaining it. The insurance cost of having
the liability insurance and stuff like that
is really expensive. And it’s a match of 85%
state/federal money, and 15% of it has to
come from the locals. So those fares, and
the contracts and
stuff that we have, make up that additional
15% that we need. Without the funding sources,
and without the community help, the dollars that we need
to stay in operation, would be very difficult. For us a working relationship
is very important. Without there being
a need, and without the people needing the service, we wouldn’t be available,
we wouldn’t be around to provide those services. It kind of makes us, kinda
connected to the community, and really just trying to give
the service that’s needed. (light music) – With us now to discuss
rural public transportation, we have two guests. We have with us Bev Herfendahl. Bev is the transit
project manager with the Minnesota Department
of Transportation, or MNDOT. And Daryn Toso is
from Fergus Falls. And he’s with Fergus Falls
Transit Alternatives. Bev, Daryn, thanks
for coming in. – [Bev] Mm-hmm. – All right, thanks
for having us. – You know, it’s
fascinating to see what happens in public transit, ’cause of course, many
people talk about, you know rural versus urban,
and how all these fit together. But I know, both
of you have some pretty big responsibilities. Bev, let’s talk about
what you do with MNDOT. – Well, I work with the state, in the Office of Transit,
and I am a project manager. I oversee budgets
and service design that all of the transit
systems put together in their annual application
budget for funding. The funding that they
receive is directed by the service design that they put into the plan, as they
put their budgets together. So. The service design tells us what kind of funding
they’re going to need, and how we can move
forward with that. – Okay. And Daryn, in Fergus Falls. It’s not just Fergus
Falls, but a larger area that you serve with
public transit, right? – Right, we cover three
counties in the area. Otter Tail county, Wilkin
county, and Clay county. And the vast majority
of the service is serving the
communities themselves, such as Fergus
Falls, Breckenridge, Moorhead a little bit, and then also Parkers Prairie and Perham. And so we cover a
wide range of areas, and the ridership
has really grown over the 10 years that
we’ve been in service. And that’s really
been great to see that people are using
the service a lot. – Sure, and I know when
we had a discussion before the show started, one
of the things that came up, was the idea that
what’s interesting about rural public
transit is that in many cases people
don’t use it until, they need it. Or they don’t even
know it’s there, right? – They don’t even know that
it exists until they need it. And then they have
a hard time trying to figure out who to
call, or where to go. – So where do people
usually go to start? How do people often
find public transit? Local agencies? – Local agencies. Generally, if they
see a bus driving around in their
community, there’s a
telephone number on it, and they will call
the telephone number, and get the information
that they need. A lot of the other
services that are available through the senior
services or the family service agencies
in each county, generally know about
what is available in their area for transit. – And in terms of what’s
available in an area. I mean we’re talking about
nearly all of Minnesota. Has, nearly all of Minnesota
has something, right? – Currently there are
only three counties that don’t have a county-wide
transit system in their area. And they are in the
south-central part of the state. Everything in the
western part of the state has public transit
available to it. – And I suppose Daryn, one
of the things that you find is that, you know,
people may not understand that there’s a responsiveness in a lot of public transit. Where it’s not just
a matter of being at a certain place for a bus, but there’s actually flexibility
in the scheduling, right? – Right, they just
make a phone call to our dispatch office and from there we can
send the bus directly to wherever they are,
right to their home, right to their
place of business. You know, wherever
they need to go. It’s curb to curb
service, so we bring ’em exactly where they wanna go. – So, once they know about it, then they tend to find
it, or they call for it, but I think one of the changes
people often know about, services for the elderly or
services for the disabled. But you also find that
there are a number of other groups of people
may not understand, right? – Oh, a large
portion of the users of public transit are
preschool children. Or, even people going
to and from work. For whatever reason, the
bus fits their needs. Whether they currently don’t
have a license available. They’re new Americans. A wide host of people
have access to transit use it to get to and from work. If you live in a
college community, the colleges are
generally helping support their students using the
public transit buses. Particularly in the
colleges where they have students from out-state,
or other areas, other countries, a
lot of other countries have more robust transit
systems than we do. So they come to the
colleges knowing full well, that transit is
something they should use. So, it’s very advantageous
in those communities. – And as much as we’ve
heard about employer issues with the workforce, this
could be even more important. Because if people are
shortage of workers, they really wanna make sure
the workers get there on time. – [Bev] Right. – And so we’re seeing a
lot more of that as well. Volunteers. I also found it
pretty interesting that you’ve got volunteers
who play a role, right? – Yes. Having the, the buses, the small buses
that you see driving around. Don’t always. We can never have
enough of them. And volunteers have
been a huge backbone to a number of transit systems. And in some cases, they are
a part of the transit system. Being able to provide service. The volunteer is driving
their own vehicle. They do the exact
same thing that a transit bus would do. They get the call
from the dispatcher. They go out, pick up, drop off. Get people where
they need to go. It provides a higher
level of service than just having the buses
available would do. – And Daryn, I know
you’ve been doing what you do for about 10 years. Now, what sort of changes
are you seeing right now, in terms of where we’ve been
with rural public transit, and where we’re going? – Well, but change has
been, like you guys had mentioned earlier,
that we’re seeing a lot of small children
use the service. That’s grown immensely in just the last couple years
for us especially. Just ridership in
general is growing. And so there’s
more demand there. We don’t cover a large portion of the real
rural part of our counties because, a lot of times
we’re just not able to provide that service. Because we can get
a lot more ridership in the communities
we serve right now. It’s growing a lot. I think, like you’ve
mentioned too, we also just need to keep
getting the word out. Let people know
that we’re there. ‘Cause there’s a lot of people, I mean we’ve been in
service for 10 years, and there’s still
a lot of people that don’t even know
that we’re there, or that they can use it. They think it’s for the
elderly and disabled. – But in many cases, you
may have somebody who, you know, doesn’t have a license or has never had a license
and they need to get from a town here
to a town there. And they struggle
to figure it out, not understanding that there
may be a bus available, right? – [Both Guests] Right. – Right. – Yeah, that’s one of the
things that I’ve noticed, when I’ve been talking
to people about transportation in
many areas is that people may not understand
what services are available. One of the other things, of
course, that comes up is, people may be wondering well,
how does it get paid for? So, well what’s the funding
like for public transit? – The funding for public
transit comes from, federal dollars, and state dollars. And it is, the
federal dollars that we use for rural public transit are dedicated specifically
for rural areas. The larger cities have
their own funding source. It comes directly to those. The federal funding
for rural transit comes to the state and
then the state will, send it out to the
locals through their
contracting process. The state dollars come from the general fund and also
the motor vehicle leased sales tax dollars. So when people lease a vehicle, there is a portion
of those dollars that come toward supporting
public transit also. And then there is also
the local portion. And in most cases,
the local portion for operating dollars
is a 15% local share. So, whatever the
contract amount that MNDOT does the
grant contract with, the transit system
for, 15% of that needs to come from the locals. And the local dollars
can be fare box. Because people do pay a
fare to use the service. Or if it’s not adequate
to meet the needs of the service, then
some of the dollars are coming from the
counties and the cities to help support it. – I’m sure the fares
can vary a great deal from area to area, but
what would some typical fares sort of be, is there, a way we could describe that? – Well, for ours, we’ve
kept them the same since the day we started. In our smaller communities, it’s a dollar a ride. And in Fergus Falls, it’s $1.50, ’cause it’s a little
wider range of a city. So, it’s very inexpensive. And I think we need to try
to keep it as low as we can. Because a lot of times
the people that are
using our service don’t have a lot
of money to spend. That’s why they’re
looking to use our bus, and they may not
have their own car. – And some of the
transit systems may charge two dollars
for a ride in a city. But the trips
between communities generally have a pro-rated
structure to them. So many miles for three dollars, so many more for four dollars. And it’s based on
a local decision decided by their
governing boards. – And one of the other
things that comes in too, is I mean, over time
you may add a route, you may change a route,
you may get rid of a route. It strikes me that would
be fairly challenging. Because if it’s difficult
for people to understand public transit is
there for them, it also takes a
while to make sure, to even figure out if a
route is successful, right? – It does. And when we start something new, we generally make
sure that it goes for at least six months
before we make any changes. It sounded like a great idea. And six months down the
road it is a great idea. And you keep doing it. Or it needs tweaking
because it needs to go to a different
direction as compared to what we thought it was going. And those are all
local decisions. A service design can get changed just by sending an email
to the project manager saying this is
working, but we need to do it this way now. And then it gets incorporated
into the new service. – And Daryn, in Fergus
Falls, I know you, you even see significant
seasonal variations, right, in terms of who uses transit,
winter versus summer? Fall versus spring, those
kinds of things, right? – Yeah, winter tends to be
the most busy time for us. It is generally busy year round, but summer it does
slow down a little bit. You don’t have the preschool
kids then, you know. Although you do get a few kids
going to summer activities. But winter’s definitely the
busiest time of the year. It keeps it running in the
winter, I’ll tell ya that. It keeps us running, very
busy all winter long. – So, as you think about
some of the demographic changes we’ve talked
about in rural Minnesota. ‘Cause of course, we’ve
talked about the fact that, you know we have an
aging population. Many counties have a
shrinking population. And then we also have new, new populations moving in. How are the demographics
changing in rural areas? And Daryn, I’d like to start
with you first on this. – Well, like you said, they’re
definitely getting older. Communities are getting older
where we’re serving people. And, um. – ‘Cause you’ve got
some people who may be, you know a little bit
older in one community. And you know, there
may be another part, another neighborhood,
where it’s younger workers. So you’ll see those
kinds of shifts, I suppose in where
the service is, right? Just from people
moving in and out? – Right, Perham’s a
little bit younger, ’cause they have a lot
more industry there. And so there,
we’re finding a lot more younger people using it. But in Fergus Falls and in
Breckenridge, especially, there’s a lot of
elderly people there. And they’ve kept us
busy, and that’s the vast majority of them is still
the elderly and the disabled. – ‘Cause I know I’ve even
read about in some cases, where there are
communities where, you know private
employers have gone to the method of
bringing, you know, buses of people into and area. And I don’t know
that a lot of places in rural Minnesota
we’ve seen that. But you read about it in
other parts of the country, or in suburban areas. So, isn’t that another
real thing, about work. About employers
really saying, wow, I need a workforce,
and I’m ramping up for a new shift and
big things are happening? – Yes, yes. And they will start looking
at public transit for that. But a lot of times, public transit isn’t available for the extended hours
that they may need for their second or third shift. And so, it’s difficult
for public transit to do some of those trips. Public transit is
available if it fits into the needs
that they have. One of the things
that we are seeing, not so much with
the demographics. But, we are seeing
that there is a need for extended hours of service. Certainly not to the
middle of the night in rural Minnesota, but. At least until
eight or 10 o’clock, so that people can go shopping after they get done with work, or take in a movie,
or that type of stuff. So, we’re seeing extended
hours during the week. And then also, some requests for Saturday and Sunday service. – I imagine if someone
moves in to a rural area, and they spent their
life in Chicago, or New York, or Minneapolis, and they’re used to a set
period of public transport, the idea of demand response,
let’s just put that in quotes. Demand response. That’s a whole new concept
for them, isn’t it? – It is. It is. – So what happens when
you talk to people? No, no, we can figure this out. Tell me what that
process is like. – Well, Daryn might be
better able to tell you that. – Actually they’re
very surprised that, if they can call
us and that we’re gonna meet ’em
right at their door. They’re like,
where’s the bus stop? We don’t have one. We’re gonna come to your
door and pick you up, where do you live? (laughter) So, it’s. Yeah, it’s a big
surprise for them when they find those things out. But, I was gonna touch
on another thing, too, with the demographics, is
with the people getting older. I think we’re providing
a service that is gonna be able to keep
people in their homes longer. And I think that’s
extremely important. – And one of the things,
well one of the challenges with the aging population
is we are seeing a lot more need for
the lifts on the buses. All of the buses are lift
accessible in Minnesota. And a lot more lift use now compared to five years ago. Because people have a
disability and they need. They can’t make
the stairs so they can use the lift to
get onto the vehicle. – Sure. So we’re seeing
changes for, you know, what people are
physically able to do, or that they may have been
using it without a lift, then they need a lift. The other thing,
you know, of course, whenever people talk
transportation in Minnesota, they always talk about funding. And you touched on this earlier. But, is it sort of
a challenge too, because you’re seeing
the needs growing like this and yet
you’re always trying to figure out, okay,
but we also need to. Also need to make sure all
the funding pieces work. – [Bev] Right. – And that’s one thing that is starting to get difficult for some of the rural
transit agencies. I’ll just speak for us I guess. But, is with that 15% match,
and the fares being so low, we’re lucky enough to
have some contracts with cities and county
and that type of thing, but it’s getting tough
to make that match. Because as we do get
more funding from MNDOT, we still have to
increase our percentage. You know, it goes
up each year too. And so, it’s getting
more difficult to make that match
for some of us. – We are in the middle of
updating our investment plan. And that is one
of the things that we are very concerned about. Because MNDOT does
have dollars available to expand service. To expand the length of days and meet more needs
in the rural area, but the challenge
is that the local councils, commissioners,
don’t have that ability. And so that is
becoming difficult. – So is that also
then leading to, different sort of combinations,
or consolidations, or coordination among
different counties, where they may have
gone on their own. Or a city might have
gone out on their own, they have to work more
with other communities? Is that happening? – In some cases it
does come down to the dollar amount that they are having to put in
at the local level. But in other cases,
it is just a matter of all of the federal and
the state requirements are becoming burdensome. And in our very small
public transit systems, the bus driver may
also be the person that does the computer
work, and may also be the person that does
the talk to the Kiwanis, and the Rotary, and. And then has to
take care of all of the federal and state
requirements on top of that, and it is overwhelming. And so, we’re finding
that we need to have people that are able to
specifically specialize in a certain segment
of a regulation that they are the go to person. And that helps eliminate some of the overwhelming burden. – What I also expect
too, that because of the traditional relationships between some communities,
some partnerships would be more logical
than others, right? Because if you’ve
got this community, and most of your health care
comes from this community, or most of their schools. So, I suppose those,
there’s sort of some logical groupings that
are more likely to happen. Right? – There are some
logical groupings. But we’re also
finding that people need to travel further. You know, in the 1980s if your traveled 20 miles to do something, you
were going a long distance. But in today’s day and
age, it is nothing to hop in your vehicle or
catch a bus ride, and go 50, 60 miles to go shopping. Or to get your medical
attention taken care of. Or that type of stuff. And so, we’re finding
that the coordination that we need to be developing is probably more
critical than some of the connections that. Whether it fits or not. (laugh) – Yeah, I know Daryn, we kind of touched on this briefly,
but like in your case, you’ve got three entire counties that you have
responsibilities for, right? – Right. Yeah, it’s a. Like I mentioned
earlier, it’s Otter Tail, Wilkin and Clay counties. Like you’d mentioned,
it’s nothing to hop on a bus and
ride 50, 60 miles. We have two different routes
that go from Fergus Falls. One goes from Fergus
Falls to Fargo, and the other ones goes
from Detroit Lakes to Fargo. – And for people who aren’t
familiar with the area, give us a sense of what
those distances are. – It’s about 60 miles
each way for that. And it’s mostly for. For people going
to work, you know, that type of thing,
but occasionally get some other
people that wanna do some shopping or medical,
and that type of stuff. But. So I think it’s just a
very valuable service to get some of those
people to work. Otherwise, you
know, they wouldn’t have the employment
that they do. – Yeah, as we go into the
last three minutes of this, let’s talk a little bit
about the future a bit. Because we talked about
the fact, you know, the demographics
are changing and, you’ve got different
people using the systems, and are going to use the system. And funding’s an
interesting mix. You know, what’s future
of public transportation? And Daryn, I wanna
start with you on this, ’cause of course, you’ve
got a concentrated area that you’re working on. Large counties, but still
a concentrated area. What do you think the future is for public transportation
in your area? – You know that’s a
really good question. What I’d like to see is where we could cover the entire counties. That’s one thing I’d
really like to see happen. Because there’s a lot of
people in the rural areas that need access. They need to get to their
medical appointments, that type of thing. – So they may be in
a town of 100 or 200 and they’re in a far
corner of the county. But right now, it’s
not realistic to necessarily go there,
right, that sort of thing? – Yeah, right. That’s one thing I would like to see us try to get to that point. I don’t know if it’ll
happen any time real soon. But if we can take
steps each year to try to increase the
area that we can serve, I think that would be
very beneficial for us. And from what I’ve, understand
this is just anecdotal, there seems to be a lot
of interest in that. I mean obviously people
live in that community. They’d like you to
be there, right? – Right, yeah. They’d like to stay
in their homes. You know, that’s
where they live. That’s where they wanna stay. They don’t wanna have to move
to Fergus Falls necessarily, or to Breckenridge. They wanna live in
their small community. Or their farmhouse, or wherever
they’ve been for many years. And so we’d like to be able
to assist them to do that. – Bev. – We’re looking at
something along those lines, and it falls into the
axis of lifeline service. Something that, twice
a week, twice a month, however it fits into the
needs of the community, that they would be able to at least access the
public transit system. I live in Lac qui Parle county. I live in Boyd. Well, I live outside
of Boyd, but. But, you know, you’re right. That’s a very small community. And those people need to. There is a small
convenience store that they may be able
to get milk and bread. But to get other
services, they need to go. – They do, yeah. – On that point, we
have to close out. We’re out of time. But I’ll thank both of you. Bev Herfendahl from Minnesota
Department of Transportation, and Daryn Toso from Fergus
Falls Transit Alternatives. Thanks for joining
us on Compass. – All right, thank you. – That’s it for this
week on Compass. Join us next week for
more people, places and issues facing our region. Thanks. (mellow music)

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