Experience gained from a newly minted public transportation service is just south of Crow Wing County's border.
Morrison County added a public transportation service called MorrTrans in April 1999. About 513 people were delivered one way per month in the beginning. By December, ridership more than doubled to 1,297 one-way passengers. Each month in 1999 witnessed a ridership increase. About 70 percent of riders are age 65 and older. But Dale Schmeck, Morrison County Social Services supervisor, said ridership is open to all without regard to age or income.
In Little Falls, MorrTrans tickets are $1 for a one-way trip. The transit system received a Region 5 grant from the Area Agency on Aging so it can offer reduced fares to those 60 and older. If tickets are purchased prior to riding the buses, the cost is 50 cents per trip.
With a focus on a growing senior population, organizers said trying to accommodate riders on their way to job sites was not an immediate goal.
"We didn't really go into it with work on our minds because we knew we could not accommodate start and end hours of employment," Schmeck said.
Morrison's public transit system nearly year old
MorrTrans, Morrison County's public transportation service, may provide a glimpse of the kind of operations that will be available in Crow Wing County in the near future.
-- The transit operation has two different systems from rural areas to the city system. Little Falls and Pierz have dial-a-ride options where an individual needs to call ahead to a dispatcher and request a ride. Advance notice of 24 hours is requested. But the dispatcher is also in contact with a driver via two-way radio and a rider may schedule a drop to a medical clinic and then call for a pick-up and a side trip to the store.
-- In rural areas MorrTrans offers a fixed flexible route where it follows the same highways on scheduled days but may deviate a mile off that route for a pre-scheduled pick-up.
-- Staff from the county's standpoint oversees the project and contracts with four organizations that have buses.
-- The buses vary in size, seating about 13 to 16 at any one time. All have wheelchair accessibility with lifts.
-- A citizen group makes up the Transit Advisory Committee with county commissioner appointees. The group meets monthly.
-- Tri-County Community Action Program, working in Crow Wing, Morrison and Todd counties, acts as the bus dispatcher with radios to drivers and a plan to deal with the logistics of getting routes started.
-- Funding came from a variety of sources from Minnesota Department of Transportation, Area Agency on Aging and the United Way. Community support was considered a key element in getting the program started.
-- About once a week there are rides to St. Cloud for medical appointments and shopping.
Buses run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. MorrTrans is supervised by the county and involves contracts with four organizations that were already in the business of transporting groups of people.
St. Otto's Care Center in Little Falls had been providing transportation for a few years before becoming a contractor for Morrison County.
"We had, in our case, quite a bit of experience working with the public -- primarily seniors and the disabled -- and that served us well here at St. Otto's to provide public transportation," said Cory Glad, vice president of long-term care and employee services at St. Otto's.
Minnesota Department of Transportation helped to purchase a handicap accessible van, picking up about 80 percent of the cost.
"That really helped us get started into the program," said Glad.
There are challenges on the horizon.
"One of our biggest challenges right now is approaching capacity with the city of Little Falls," Schmeck said of the ability to meet ridership demand. About 75 percent of ridership is within the city limits of Little Falls. "Another challenge we have is increasing ridership from the rural areas."
Changes may lie ahead in response to those challenges. Organizers have considered expanding hours of operation and looking at more ways to increase rural ridership where they suspect many potential riders may be, such as senior citizens who need a transit service to get to medical appointments, shopping facilities or social events.
Another requested service has been for Sunday operations to get people to and from church services. And, in regard to increased ridership, MorrTrans may be moving in a direction of greater public visibility. Individual buses, used by contract organizations for their own purposes, carry a smaller identity sign for MorrTrans. Schmeck said at some point they may consider a plan to paint all the buses for increased public identity as a transit system available for use.
"We left it pretty stable for the first nine months and now we might see some changes," Schmeck said.
Response from a statewide transit survey includes about 41 surveys from MorrTrans. Each transit system is expected to provide at least 50 completed surveys.
Of the results, Schmeck said: "People are quite pleased and are wanting it to stay and not go away."
Glad sees a strong continuing need for public transportation, which requires a monetary commitment from the community with the addition of state and federal funds.
"Our community has come forward and is utilizing our service at a greater rate all the time. And that's probably its biggest success measure -- that people are using the system."
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