Greater Minnesota’s transit leaders

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On Minnesota 2020’s main site this week, I highlighted the creative work of city leaders in La Crescent, Minn., to provide efficient and convenient small-town transit by partnering with the traditional city bus system in nearby La Crosse, Wis. Another fine example of smart civic leadership is Paul Bunyan Transit, a nonprofit group in Bemidji.

Bunyan Transit serves Beltrami County, covering 3,000 sparsely populated square miles of northern Minnesota with 11 buses running six days a week. In addition to its regular dial-a-ride service, it offers weekly trips to Fargo, N.D., 135 miles away, mainly for residents’ medical appointments. A new study [PDF] sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration singles Bunyan Transit out for praise in several areas:

  • Its automatic vehicle location system, implemented in 2004, allows dispatchers to pinpoint where each bus is in real time. This allows dispatchers to “insert additional passenger trips that fit into the operators’ already scheduled trips and general path of travel,” said the report by the Transit Cooperative Research Program of the National Academies of Science. This has “contained deadhead mileage and focused more attention on shared riding and grouping trips,” the report added. Further, “with the ability to ‘see’ a specific vehicle, the dispatcher can more accurately respond to riders asking when their vehicle will arrive.”

The result? “This rural system has seen a noticeable decrease in complaints from riders about vehicles not showing up.”

  • Bunyan Transit resulted from the merger of separate systems for the county and the city of Bemidji, yielding “a more focused and efficient transit system,” the report said. “Before the merger, annual ridership on the two separate systems fluctuated up and down year to year; after the merger, ridership increased annually over the next three years … The cost per hour and cost per mile decreased slightly after the merger, while before, the cost per hour and per mile had trended upwards, sometimes by more than 10 percent annually.”
  • Some rural areas of Beltrami County get scheduled service as little as twice a month. According to the report, “To further improve productivity, this rural system requires a minimum of four passengers for each of its scheduled trips from the outlying communities; otherwise, the scheduled trip will not operate. With this policy in place, riders will often group themselves in advance and then call to request a trip, now guaranteed to operate as long as the riders have created a group of four.”

Rural transit faces difficult challenges serving its far-flung riders. Bunyan Transit has shown how to tap multiple resources — modern technology, cooperation across government jurisdictions and even extra planning from customers —  to do the job as efficiently as possible. That’s the kind of creativity Minnesota 2020 recommends in our recent report on Greater Minnesota transit, and what people across the state should expect.