As demand for rural transportation heats up, funding cools down

VINE volunteers
VINE volunteer drivers John Stephanie, Jo Cattrysse, Pat Schmidtke, seated, and Richard Covey, standing, each drive thousands of miles a year and contribute hundreds of dollars out of their pocket to transport the nonprofit's clients to medical appointments, work and other destinations.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Minnesota's rural transit services are being hit with money problems just as demand is starting to take off.

The demand comes from the state's aging population as well as working people who can't afford a personal vehicle. The money problems are a trickle down effect from the cuts in state and other funds for rural transit.

There's literally a cloud over Brianna Anderson's life these days. Her '96 Ford van went up in smoke last week.

"It started smokin' and downshifting and all kinds of wonderful things, and here I come to found out I blew a head gasket," Anderson said.

Anderson found a temporary way to get to her job in Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota then started burning up the phone lines looking for a more permanent transportation option.

The results weren't good.

Anderson, a single parent who is living paycheck to paycheck, was at her wit's end especially after checking with the local public transit supplier which, she discovered, can't really deal with a mother who needs to get to daycare, then to work.

"It's a horrible position to be in."

"And then figure out how to pick up my daughter and get home and go from there. As you can tell my voice is cracking, I'm getting a little emotional. It's a horrible position to be in," she said.

Anderson's temporary solution is a loaner from a friend. There's nothing that extreme or unusual about her dilemma. Not having access to a personal vehicle or transit in rural Minnesota can be a life altering event if keeping a job or getting medical care is at stake.

Minnesota is home to 61 public rural transit agencies. State officials say they supplied nearly 12 million rides last year.

Jackie Forner, director of the Isanti-Chisago Heartland Express service said riderships is up ten percent each year the past three years. Her service is based fifty miles north of the Twin Cities.

Besides older citizens, Forner said riders include people who can't afford their own car and need the bus to get to work.

But Forner's budget is down.

Pam Determan
VINE Executive Director Pam Determan says the Mankato-based nonprofit is the country's largest faith in action group, a private agency with 215 volunteer drivers supplying thousands of rides a year for clients.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"If we get any more budget reductions we're going to really have to look at cutting service, which is going to be just really hard," she said. "Right now we've been able to just hold status quo without losing anything."

That's not the case elsewhere.

Other rural public transit services, and some non profits who also offer bus and car rides are cutting routes as the need is growing.

Minnesota Department of Transportation transit office planner Tom Gottfried says Mn/DOT survey's show a jump in demand in the near future.

"There's practically a doubling in size that we're anticipating, so if you want to say we're currently meeting about fifty percent, that's about where we are at right now," Gottfried said.

No shortage of demand but a definite shortage of money. Already Mn/DOT has cut $400,000 to rural transit providers. Another cut of a million and half dollars is on the horizon.

The cuts take a toll on public transit providers and also some private nonprofits who get state transportation grants.

Pam Determan, director of the Mankato based VINE, a faith in action social services organization, said her service lost its state grant, $239,000 last year. That's about a fourth of its budget.

Determan said more money for rural transit would be a smart investment at a time when residents in rural areas need to travel father for services.

"There isn't places for them to go to the pharmacy, there's no physicians, there's some hard times for Minnesota which is why investing in transit is going to be so important," Determan said.

Raising taxes for rural transit is one option, but VINE's Richard Covey doesn't like it. Covey is one of VINE's 215 volunteer drivers and an 83-year-old retired farmer who logs thousands of miles and donates hundreds of dollars out of his own pocket a year as he gives others a ride as often as four days a week.

Covey said charity is the solution for supplying rural transit--not higher taxes.

"I can't take care of the people up in Minneapolis; I can't take care of the people over in Ethiopia, but I can take care of the people in Vernon Center and in the surrounding community," he said.

But as the volunteers age, even that is changing. A growing number are becoming clients of the service they once provided and it's not clear there'll be enough volunteers to step into their shoes.

If people resist paying more taxes to supply rural transit and if enough volunteers can't be found, there are still other options.

The most obvious is people moving to areas with more transit options. Simple solutions aren't so obvious.