Greater Minnesota gets on board: Transit ridership grows while investment declines


Introduction & Key Findings
In the eyes of many Minnesotans, public transit is a creature of the big cities, a way to get around the urban jungle that is generally praised by policy progressives for enhancing mobility and prosperity, but denounced by conservatives as welfare on wheels. 

This ongoing debate tends to overlook the growing role of transit in Greater Minnesota, where it enjoys support from citizens and local officials across the political spectrum and ridership gains that significantly exceed the metro area’s, despite chronic resource challenges. It’s not hard to see why when you consider the stories of people like Dan Wieberdink of Pennock, Minn.

Kandiyohi Area Transit (KAT) gives Wieberdink, 25, a lifeline to work and volunteer opportunities miles from his rural group home despite cerebral palsy that keeps him in a wheelchair. “I take the bus wherever I go,” he said. “It gives me my independence. I’m able to do things on my own.”

For six years, Wieberdink has ridden KAT’s lift-equipped vans to his job as an administrative assistant for the Willmar Area United Campus Ministry and volunteer shifts at the Bethesda Pleasantview Nursing Home. Without KAT, founded in 1999, “it would be a lot different,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff I do now.”

KAT is one of 60 different Greater Minnesota transit services that cover most, but not all, rural counties in the state as well as urban centers such as Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud. Ridership on this far-flung system reached a record 11.2 million in 2008, an astonishing 7.8 percent increase over 2007 (compared with Metro Transit’s strong 6.1 percent gain). Ridership outside the Twin Cities is on track for another 4.2 percent rise this year to an estimated 11.6 million. Still, state officials say fiscal constraints keep non-metro service far short of need and demand.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) says this gap is likely to widen as the state’s elderly population doubles by 2035, bringing parallel increases in the numbers of disabled and the poor who depend on transit for basic mobility. MnDOT also envisions greater demand for rural transit job commuting, especially in growing regions north and northwest of the Twin Cities, but no boost in resources to meet it.

Applications by rural Kittson and Pine counties to establish transit services this year were rejected by state officials because of stagnant funding, including $1.9 million in transit unallotments by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. That left four counties in Minnesota lacking any public transit and eight others having only municipal, not countywide, services.

“It’s really unfortunate,” said Pine County Engineer Mark LeBrun. “We’re left with people not going places because they can’t, or spending more driving when they shouldn’t.”

That’s largely because state-level transit funding hasn’t kept pace with demand or the growing contributions from federal and local sources.

The federal government increased its contributions to Greater Minnesota transit operations from $3.1 million in 1999 to an estimated $10.3 million this year, a 232 percent boost. Over the same period, state General Fund support grew by less than one-tenth that rate, from $13.2 million to $16 million, not even enough to cover inflation.

Local property taxpayers in Greater Minnesota kicked in rapidly growing shares of transit funding totaling $16.2 million from 1999 through 2001 before a portion of motor vehicle sales taxes (MVST) was dedicated to transit in 2002 as a partial replacement. Lagging auto sales, however, held the MVST aid below the $8.5 million recorded in 2004 for every year afterward until it hit $9.6 million in 2008 and an estimated $14.2 million this year, thanks mostly to a greater share of the tax going to transit.

And despite the MVST dedication, Greater Minnesota property taxpayers have continued to support transit in their communities to the tune of more than $2 million per year.

This year, with the state facing a huge budget deficit, General Fund transit support was cut statewide, although a shift of 1.25 percent of MVST revenue from roads to transit is expected to maintain current operations in Greater Minnesota. The shift totals $6 million over two years, but $4 million of that is to finance Northstar commuter rail operations that began in November and new dial-a-ride services in outlying areas of the seven Twin Cities counties starting in January.

State officials say that leaves no room for expansion of basic transit in the 80 Greater Minnesota counties.

Meanwhile, under bipartisan legislation being pushed by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota in Congress, federal transit investment would increase 90 percent from current levels to $99.8 billion over six years, continuing Washington’s aggressive support for rural mobility. That initiative, however, appears to be bottled up until next year at the earliest. The Obama administration has called for delaying it into 2011.

Key Findings

  • Unbeknownst to many Minnesotans, public transit is an important lifeline for people in Greater Minnesota, especially growing populations of elderly, low-income and the disabled. It enjoys strong public support in most rural areas of the state.

  • A government-sponsored study pegged transit’s average economic impact per rural county in America at more than $1 million per year, with a benefit-cost ratio of more than 3 to 1.

  • Transit services, often dial-a-ride vans, are available in much of rural Minnesota. Only four outstate counties lack any public transit, although eight others, mostly in south central Minnesota, have only city services.

  • Despite these and other gaps in service and an unprecedented halt to expansion of the system because of state funding cutbacks, Greater Minnesota public transit posted a 7.8 percent increase in ridership in 2008 and is on track for another 4.2 percent gain this year, to 11.6 million trips.

  • From 2003 to 2008, Greater Minnesota ridership increased 21.5 percent at the same time that state funding declined by 8 percent.

  • The Minnesota Department of Transportation projects demand for Greater Minnesota transit next year at 17.9 million rides but predicts a 42 percent shortfall in funding. Because of scant resources as far as the eye can see, MnDOT expects to fall 27 percent short of its formal goal of meeting just 80 percent of the demand.

  • When MnDOT asked existing Greater Minnesota transit providers to identify their greatest challenges, 94 percent of them named inadequate funding.

  • Lagging state General Fund support – dropping this year to a level not seen since 2001 — has hindered Greater Minnesota transit development. Fast-growing federal aid, motor vehicle sales tax contributions, local property taxes and operating revenues have had to pick up the slack.

  • The most successful of Greater Minnesota’s 60 transit agencies have overcome parochial insularity and short-sightedness to improve quality of life for many residents. Top strategies for getting the most for the money include routes across county lines, aggressive efforts to coordinate with dozens of special federal transportation programs and their local grantees, trip-scheduling technology, on-staff mobility managers and alternatives to costly dial-a-ride service such as route deviation, subscription ridership and volunteer drivers using their own vehicles.