In 2007, the three-bus transit system in Montevideo in western Minnesota gave people about 15,000 rides, making the dial-a-ride system one of the tiniest of the state’s 60-plus transit services.
The next year, ridership declined. Each passenger trip cost the system more than $7.
That’s when the town of 5,000 shifted gears, so to speak. The city council stopped thinking about transit as a public works service like street sweeping or sewage treatment. Instead, it started to envision helping people get around as a community collaboration.
It put the operation under a new community development office, not public works. Conversations began with school officials, assisted living homes, people engaged in tourism and others. The city changed the service’s name and created a new slogan. It offered help for those with limited English. It connected with employers and started running early buses for workers.
Last year the system contracted with a training center to provide rides for clients, and it cemented a connection with a larger regional system.
The result? In 2011, Montevideo Transit provided more than 27,000 rides at a cost of $5.34 per ride. That 79 percent ridership increase over five years made it the fastest growing transit system in the state. And Nick Haggenmiller thinks it can hit 40,000 this year and bring down the cost-per-ride to around $4.
Haggenmiller is Montevideo’s assistant city manager for community development and the service’s overseer and evangelist:
“Transit, if simply run in a vacuum of strictly transit related activities, would be a shameful waste of tax dollars,” Haggenmiller writes in a letter to the Minnesota Department of Transportation this month. The letter is a response to a request for information by MnDOT, one of a million such bureaucratic tasks state officials can demand. But Haggenmiller’s response practically soars.
“Transit is not and should not be an island upon itself. Rather, transit is part of a greater community collaboration, consisting of connecting people and places to cultural and commercial entities. Transit enables people with limited physical or financial means to maintain a greater sense of personal independence and most importantly, be more active citizens in the community.”
State and federal money for transit systems has been flat and doesn’t seem likely to rise. At the same time, gas prices and demographic shifts are serving to create more demand for helping people get where they want to go.
So transit people and others around Minnesota are under pressure to find efficiency, use their imaginations, find new ways of doing things. Here at Ground Level, we’re doing some reporting on this right now and plan to roll out coverage soon. But looking through the ridership numbers MnDOT keeps, I was struck by how much the change has varied around the state.
Overall, outstate transit ridership rose 12 percent between 2007 and 2011. You think of outstate Minnesota as dominated by car travel, and it is. But that’s still 11 million transit rides to the doctor, to work, to school, often — just as in the Twin Cities — for people who have no alternative. And what’s intriguing is that some places, like Montevideo, Wadena, Hibbing and St. Peter, far outstripped the overall rate of increase. Others, like Northfield, Faribault and Nobles County, declined by double-digit percentages.
The reasons vary, and even state and local officials charged with tracking the phenomenon are hard-pressed to explain every trend.
In some places, the deaths of a few regular elderly riders can push numbers down. In others, an increasing population of people no longer driving can increase them. St. Peter and Hibbing services have pushed harder to accommodate college students. (In St. Peter, in fact, the Gustavus Adolphus student senate has substantial say in how the service runs to and from campus.) In Northfield, colleges have changed course on contracting and transit system ridership has declined.
Fuel-price-induced fare increases have caused declines in some places. Even the state shutdown in 2011 caused a temporary drop, one local transit official told me.
But I was impressed with how much difference someone like Haggenmiller and others in Montevideo apparently can make just by thinking differently. He said he was hired in 2008 after the city council decided it needed a new approach to helping people get around.
“Taken in sum, it is the opinion of the Montevideo Transit that cooperation and coordination have been the rule, not the exception for the last four years, viewing transit as a community development initiative rather than a system or program of transport,” Haggenmiller wrote.
Sarah Lenz, program coordinator for MnDOT, said that previously Montevideo was “doing kind of a pokey little service for seniors and some people with disabilities. They weren’t doing anything wrong, but (Haggenmiller) is looking at the big picture.”
Have thoughts? You can comment here or on the MPR News Facebook page here.