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Ridership on rural transit soars while funding tanks

No matter where you live, when choices other than the private car are available for getting around, people will use them. Minnesotans outside the Twin Cities are no exception. They're speaking with their feet and their fare cards -- greater Minnesota transit is not just working, it's booming.

Minnesota 2020's recent report on the state of greater Minnesota transit found ridership is up more than 20 percent since 2003 and projected to grow another 4.2 percent this year. In Beltrami County, ridership increased 24.3 percent while state funding dropped 6.8 percent.

The reasons for this dramatic jump vary, but as Jim Heilig, transit director in Duluth, told us, "More people started taking the bus when the gas prices skyrocketed and realized, 'Hey, I like this. It's affordable and gets me where I need to go.' And our ridership numbers just kept growing."

Transit has historically been considered an urban issue, but these numbers tell a different story. In 2008, people took 11.2 million rides on greater Minnesota transit, a 7.8 percent yearly increase that surpassed that in the Twin Cities. Arrowhead Transit, which serves seven northeastern counties covering 16,000 square miles, has been asked by officials in Pine County, one of several in the state with no transit at all, to extend service there, but declining state funding has stood in the way.

It's no secret that the nation and the state are facing tough economic times. However, state funding for the transit that's so in need -- oftentimes because riders can't afford a car or are unable to drive -- hasn't kept pace with demand. When the Minnesota Department of Transportation asked ggreater Minnesota transit providers to list their greatest challenges, 94 percent named inadequate funding.

To date, the gap has been filled with increasing federal aid, motor vehicle sales tax contributions, local property taxes and operating revenues. But as ridership climbs, these stopgaps can't keep up without additional support from the state General Fund.

And this is where the state has a chance to seize a vitally important opportunity. A government-sponsored study pegged transit's average economic impact per rural county in America at more than $1 million per year, with a benefit-cost ratio of more than 3 to 1 in improved access to employment and education, increased tourism and tourism-related jobs and reduced living costs in remote areas. But without state funding to match demand, the system will falter and service will suffer.

Our state was once a rural transit pioneer. When a federal transit demonstration program was launched in 1973, Minnesota quickly took advantage. Arrowhead Transit began transporting senior citizens in 1974 and is now one of the largest rural transit providers in the country.

Now, more than 60 transit agencies across greater Minnesota provide rides to tens of thousands of individuals each day. Most of these transit agencies are extremely efficient and can adapt on a dime -- offering door-to-door service via route deviation, partnering with other local communities and transit operators, changing routes based on evolving needs for travel to work, school, medical appointments and other destinations.

The foundation for rural transit here is strong. But, as with so many of the state's once-great public services, we're falling behind.

Minnesota has long provided a high quality of life for its citizens. greater Minnesota transit is a piece of that. Let's not lose ground in yet another critical area. Let's capitalize on the great gains we've made, build on what exists and fully fund transit around the state. That's the way to be sure all Minnesotans have the mobility they want and need to get around.

We should all be on board to keep this exemplary system running and growing around the state.

Conrad deFiebre is transportation fellow for Minnesota 2020, a progressive, non-profit think tank that focuses on the issues that matter for Minnesota's future success.