Photo/Pipestone Performing Arts Center
When the Performing Arts Center in Pipestone in southwestern Minnesota hosts an evening performance by the Opland Singers, the Calumet Players or musicians from the Twin Cities, Patricia Beyers picks up as many friends as she can to drive them downtown.
“But I am not the bus service,” the 78-year-old resident said, “and I only make one trip.” The dial-a-ride bus service that serves the town of 4,000 quits at 5 p.m. So the 115-year-old Sioux quartzite building that can hold 290 people often contains far fewer. Some of those who might attend won’t or can’t go out in the evenings, Beyers said.
And if you want to go 45 miles to Sioux Falls to the doctor or shopping and you don’t drive, “you better have a friend,” said Beyers, a former community economic development director in both Iowa and Minnesota.
That’s one small snapshot of how some Minnesota residents can’t or don’t get where they want to go. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has a set of formulas to measure that unserved demand and it says that by providing more than 11 million rides, the state’s outstate transit agencies met only 61 percent of demand in 2010.
To get a feel for what the unmet needs actually are in real terms, we turned to our Public Insight Network and asked some of its members. The responses we received from Beyers and others were illuminating.
Alexandria retiree Andy Lopez also mentioned cultural events that people who no longer drive can’t get to. “A lot of those people are very frustrated and they stay in nursing homes and they just don’t go many places. It diminishes their quality of life.”
Lopez raised another point that quite a few PIN members brought up: intercity buses. He takes the Jefferson Lines bus from Alexandria to the Twin Cities if he has to fly somewhere and doesn’t want to park a car at the airport. But he notes that the state-subsidized run doesn’t have enough stops.
“If you live in Sauk Centre, you have to drive 30 miles to take the bus.”
One way to get where you want to go is to rely on the kindness of others, either strangers or friends. But several respondents to our PIN questions noted a decline in the availability of volunteer driver programs.
Joel Young, the city clerk in Chatfield near Rochester, was one. He thinks one factor is the disappearance in some places of organizations like Jaycees or Rotary that ran volunteer driver programs.
“Twenty years ago there was a pretty active group of volunteer drivers,” Young said. “My sense is there’s still some of that but not a formal program.”
On the plus side, Young noted, more people are willing to give public transit a try. The first time gas hit $4 a gallon, more people jumped on the daily buses the Mayo Clinic runs to and from Chatfield for both employees and other riders. There used to be one bus morning and night and now there are three.
“One of my desires is to get people talking and thinking about this. It’s being used by people who are creative and don’t mind public transit.”
For Clark Johnson, an educator in North Mankato, the dream is specific:
“I dream of a day when the metro area has excellent mass transit and it is fed by frequent trains from Mankato, Rochester, Eau Claire, Duluth and St. Cloud (if not, Fargo) making it very possible for rural Minnesotans to travel to and in the Twin Cities without driving a car.”
The Legislature has set a target of meeting 80 percent of the demand for outstate Minnesota service in 2015. That would involve 15 million transit trips, compared to 11 million in 2010. It would also involve spending more than $100 million in operating money. That’s almost twice what federal, state and local governments spend now.
Do you have thoughts about outstate Minnesota’s unmet transit needs? Help us tell the story by clicking here to answer a few questions.
Check back next week for more reporting on this topic in a special Ground Level report we’re calling Getting There.