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Greater Minnesota Transit Growing

February 28, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

What do you call a public transit agency with a 2,672 percent increase in ridership over that past 14 years? Today it's the Minnesota Public Transit Association's Transit System of the Year, honored for its steady expansion of "exceptional service at an affordable price."

Hiawathaland Transit, which serves the southeastern Minnesota counties of Goodhue, Rice and Wabasha, began in 1995 with a single dial-a-ride van in Lake City. Now it operates 40 wheelchair-lift buses across the region, including seven under a contract with the city of Winona. Last year it provided 195,423 rides in three counties, plus more than 200,000 in Winona.

In 1998, the earliest year for which ridership tallies are available, Hiawathaland transported just 7,501 passengers. Now it racks up more than that annually in every one of its eight owned-and-operated service areas stretching from Red Wing to Zumbrota, Wabasha to Faribault.

Hiawathaland, a service of Three Rivers Community Action Inc., was still a minor player with a handful of dial-a-ride vans in four small Goodhue and Wabasha cities until 2004. Then the area's bigger regional centers—Faribault, Northfield, Red Wing and Winona—started to come calling.

"They approached us," said Any Repinski, the system director. "They didn't want to administer transit anymore. We're the transit people around here. It's what we do every day."

Red Wing came first, turning its municipal system over to Hiawathaland in 2005. Since then, Red Wing ridership has grown more than 50 percent. Faribault and Northfield, rated among the state's worst outstate transit performers with ridership declines of 25 and 41 percent, respectively, from 2007 through 2011, joined Hiawathaland last year and began recouping their losses.

With its toll-free phone dispatch center in Plainview, broad reach, efficiencies of scale and constant efforts to serve more people, Hiawathaland is a model for consolidation of Minnesota's dozens of rural transit agencies, many of which coordinate poorly with each other. Hiawathaland's amazing growth comes not only from adding existing parts to the system, but also from improving their basic services and interconnecting them. For example, Hiawathaland has recently added several intercity routes that didn't exist before. 

There still are service gaps across the region, including Rice County outside of Faribault and Northfield plus small towns like Pine Island, Zumbro Falls and Millville. Repinski said those places make "frequent requests for public transit." But state funding for Greater Minnesota transit hasn't kept up the with need, and Repinski said no further expansions are on the table for Hiawathaland.

Instead, last June the agency launched Hiawathaland Auxiliary Regional Transit (HART), which taps volunteer drivers to transport riders where no formal transit services exist. "We're moving into mobility management," Repinski said. "If somebody calls in, we're able to help, but it might be a ride in somebody's private car." The program sports a cute heart logo.

In 2011, earlier volunteer driver programs throughout Greater Minnesota provided 55,689 trips covering more than 1.6 miles, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Greater Minnesota's wide-open spaces and sparse populations have challenged efforts to afford senior citizens, students, the disabled and the carless the mobility they need for work, shopping, medical appointments, recreation and all the other destinations that most of us take for granted. But aggressive expansion and improvement at regional levels combined with robust state and federal grants for outstate transit equipment and operations have made it possible and affordable: Hiawathaland's base fare is $1.25, $1.75 for dial-a-ride and $10 for intercity trips.

"It is not a money-making service, but it is vital," Repinski told the Rochester Post-Bulletin last year. "Our goal now is to maintain the services we have. Future expansions are on hold until more funds can be allocated to transit."

As our state policymakers weigh Gov. Mark Dayton's transformative plan for Twin Cities buses and light rail, they shouldn't forget the transit needs of Minnesota's 80 other counties as well.

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