Volunteer drivers harder to find

When we started to do some reporting a few weeks ago on how people get around outstate Minnesota, I expected we’d find that tight transit money, higher gas prices, changing demographics and other factors were exerting pressure to come up with some imaginative solutions.

But I also expected that solutions to the state’s unmet transit demand would hinge on increasing enthusiasm for the extensive local and county networks of volunteer drivers.

That turns out not to be the case.

Instead, the programs that offer mileage reimbursement for volunteers to haul others to the doctor, to the store, to the bank and elsewhere are having a hard time finding enough drivers.

“The demand is greater,” said Verna Toenyan, who has coordinated a driver program in Todd County for years. “And there’s a different kind of volunteer now that’s coming to the front. They want to have time to take off and go south. They want to spend time with the grandchildren.”

Toenyan is clear she’s fine with that and wants her volunteers to enjoy the task and not feel pinned down. But she’s advertising more, trying to recruit a bigger stable of people she can call on.

Toenyan was echoing what several people in the Public Insight Network told us, and reporter Jennifer Vogel and I have heard the same thing all around the state.

“We are having a harder time finding drivers,” said Anna Palo of Rural Rides in Virginia on the Iron Range. “It’s because of the price of gas. Some people can’t afford to cover things until they get their first reimbursement check.”

You might think that as more people reach the age where they need rides, more Baby Boomers would be coming up behind them to provide the rides. Apparently that’s not necessarily so.

Keven Anderson, formerly a MnDOT official and now with the Small Urban & Rural Transit Center in Fargo, said the demographic tide is actually working against those trying to solve the problem.

“God love the volunteer drivers and there is a huge need,” Anderson said. “But part of the problem is the volunteer drivers are reaching an age where they need the ride. When you start looking at the demographics of the aging population, boomers are hitting retirement age. A lot of them are not the ones most interested in being that volunteer, unlike generations before. It’s becoming harder and harder.”

More on outstate transit tomorrow in a project we’re calling “Getting There.” Watch this space.

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