Rural transit to be among hot topics at public hearingby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — State transportation officials are likely to get an earful at a public hearing Thursday afternoon on transit in greater Minnesota from outstate transit agencies worried about money.
Greater Minnesota transit comes in all shapes and sizes from big systems in Duluth and St. Cloud to smaller rural oriented services.
The number of Greater Minnesota transit systems has more than doubled.
"We've gone from 30 some systems in 1985, to 66 systems 20 years later," said Tony Kellen, director of operations and technology for the greater St. Cloud public transit service, Metro Bus.
The Twin Cities transit spending -- nearly $390 million a year -- soaks up most of the state's transit spending. Even so, Kellen said there's been real growth outstate.
"We've gone from $51 million worth of service on the street in 2007, to $60 million three years later.
The growth is fueled in part by voter approval a couple of years ago of the constitutional amendment diverting a portion of the sales tax on motor vehicles to finance transit including rural transit.
More recently, MnDOT officials say the legislature increased the percentage of Motor Vehicle Sales Tax (MVST) dedicated to Greater Minnesota transit. That could lead to an additional $6 million in the next few years.
Now the bad news.
Projected MVST revenue is down and will remain down until vehicle buyers return to showrooms.
Still more bad news.
The rolling state budget deficit continues and most recently caused the governor to cut state spending.
The cut for rural transit works out to a reduction of $400,000 this year and $3 million over the next two fiscal years.
State Rep. Bernie Lieder chairs the House Transportation Finance Committee, the Crookston Democrat said a good number of rural transit systems are in a tight spot.
"I don't think they've been having bake sales or anything, but I think it's pretty close to that," Lieder said.
Minnesota's 66 rural transit systems supply millions of rides a year. The big systems in Duluth, St. Cloud, Rochester and Moorhead supply rides for students, workers, the elderly and others. Smaller more rural-oriented transit systems have a higher proportion of elderly riders.
The Clay County Rural Transit service in northwestern Minnesota offers a commuter bus for workers living in communities along a stretch of Highway 10. There's also dial-a-ride service for people needing to get to medical and other appointments.
Clay County director Georgia Beaudry said money from a state grant has been cut in half. He said they scuttled plans to expand another commuter service and have made cuts elsewhere to cope.
"We have actually cut back on our dial-a-ride service from eight to four hours a day, and MnDOT is proposing that we cut that back an additional two to four hours," Beaudry said.
State officials are encouraging Beaudry and other rural transit suppliers to recruit more volunteer drivers. Most outstate transit services rely on a corps of volunteers to supply rides, but the volunteers are often retired and a growing number of them are becoming recipients of the volunteer transportation they once supplied.
Representative Bernie Lieder said the outlook for any additional revenue for outstate transit systems is not bright.
That's a disappointing assessment given ridership increases and a projected jump in demand as outstate residents age and as the paychecks of workers shrink.
"Right now, it's just about an impossible situation because it doesn't appear there is any additional source of revenue," Beaudry said.
The result of failing to supply adequate rural transit, Tony Kellen of St. Cloud Metro Bus said, simply adds to what taxpayers can expect to shell out in other costs.
"If people can't get to work, who ends up paying the bill? Social service programs end up paying unemployment; end up paying health care," Kellen said.
The public hearing on greater Minnesota transit starts at 3 p.m.
MnDOT officials say people wanting to participate can join video hookups in communities around the state listed on the MnDot Web page.
- Morning Edition, 10/08/2009, 7:45 a.m.