The lush orchards around La Crescent have made it the Apple Capital of Minnesota, but relatively few of the Mississippi River town’s 5,114 residents work in them. A lot more have jobs in La Crosse, Wis., a bustling regional center across the river.
This posed a commuting problem for many of the workers. With no La Crescent transit service, their choices were effectively limited to driving to and from the job. City officials started a bus route into downtown La Crosse four miles away, but it drew little ridership. The schedule didn’t fit people’s needs, service was unreliable and riders couldn’t transfer to the extensive La Crosse bus system without paying a second fare.
That’s where the City Council and Mayor Mike Poellinger, himself a La Crosse wage-earner, stepped in with a bright idea. Why not coordinate with the La Crosse Municipal Transit Utility to provide more efficient, seamless service to La Crescent folks? The state line between the two cities put up an extra tangle of red tape before all the funding could be secured, but the officials’ persistence paid off.
Since its inception 12 years ago, the Apple Express has posted regular ridership gains, reaching 18,527 trips last year — 68 percent above the 2003 level despite an 11 percent drop in state funding. “Our ridership grows because we’re able to be on time and provide good transfers,” Poellinger said.
That wasn’t always possible until La Crosse MTU drivers began piloting the 28-seat, wheelchair-accessible bus owned by the city of La Crescent on eight daily runs. If the Apple Express breaks down, MTU supplies a backup bus. Passengers can call ahead to get curbside pickup several blocks off the set route, and, for a single $1.25 fare, they can go anywhere on the 10-route La Crosse transit system stretching into its Wisconsin suburbs.
MTU staffers handle the grant applications and administration, while La Crosse employers and the city’s three colleges kick in subsidized bus passes for workers and students. Next year an indoor transit center will open in downtown La Crosse, where Apple Express riders will be able to transfer in year-round comfort.
I visited La Crescent this month on a Minnesota 2020 tour to release our latest transportation report, “Greater Minnesota Gets on Board; Transit Ridership Grows While Investment Declines.” I learned that some five dozen outstate public transit agencies are finding smart ways to serve a growing market of transit-hungry commuters, students, elderly and disabled despite troublesome cuts in state support.
For all its virtues, free enterprise hasn’t met this need. It took creative civic leaders to find a solution that worked in La Crescent’s unique situation. This puts the lie to conservative claims that economic creativity and responsiveness to consumer demand spring only from the profit-motivated private sector.
The Apple Express is but a small part of our nation’s $9.3 trillion stock of public fixed assets, things like schools, highways and military facilities that make up our shared wealth created by government. But it’s as good an example as any of the creativity that public-spirited leaders continually tap to meet the needs that entrepreneurship can’t supply.