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Organizers optimistic about the future of Grocery Express

Karen Mason (left) and Lisa Lamar board the DTA's "Grocery Express" at Super One on a recent Tuesday afternoon. "I use it every week," said Mason. "It's so convenient." The service was inititated in September. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Karen Mason of Duluth places groceries purchased at the West Duluth Super One in one of the bins in the DTA's "Grocery Express". Mason uses the weekly service all the time. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

About 10 weeks into the trial run of Duluth's "Grocery Express" bus line, organizers say positive feedback from riders is giving hope for the future of the route.

"We took a complicated trip to the grocery store for some people and just made it more manageable, especially for people to carry their groceries," said Matt Traynor, who helped organize the special Duluth Transit Authority bus route to improve access to a grocery store for residents in some Duluth neighborhoods considered "food deserts" with poor access to healthy food.

The Grocery Express route's four-month trial launched Sept. 1 and has been running every Tuesday through the Lincoln Park and Morgan Park neighborhoods — ending in the West Duluth Super One parking lot. The bus has been modified to fit shoppers' needs by providing shelves and bins to carry additional groceries.

Traynor, the community organizer for CHUM and partner with the Fair Food Access Campaign in Duluth, says he'll be surprised if the route doesn't continue once the trial is over.

He said he's received comments from riders praising the route's simplicity, and asking that it be expanded to other parts of the city.

Carol Perkins, a frequent Grocery Express rider, said she is grateful for the route and continues to spread the word of the bus line.

"It's really mild out right now so we don't really think about what it's going to be like when it's icy and snowy," she said earlier this month, before last week's brush with winter weather. "That's a big hindrance for people. If you're carrying a lot of groceries and it's slippery, it's almost impossible for people to get around."

The Grocery Express provides a more direct bus route from the neighborhoods to the grocery store.

"I had a car, but it decided not to run, so I've been utilizing the Tuesday bus and it drops me off right in front (of the Super One store). I just love it. It's so much easier than getting off on Grand Avenue and walking," Perkins said.

Jim Heilig, director of planning and administration for the Duluth Transit Authority, said he is optimistic about the Grocery Express route meeting state ridership standards — but he said the DTA still would like to see some additional riders use the route.

"From a state perspective, they like to see 10 passengers an hour. We're averaging 75 a day, so we're not far away from their number," Heilig explained. "From a DTA perspective, we like to see better than 125 as our daily ridership because our standards are a little different than the state."

The highest number of Grocery Express riders in a single day exceeded 100. The lowest was 62.

"Numbers will definitely increase with winter coming. It really depends on the type of weather. Light snow helps us, pouring rain hurts us, negative-30 degrees hurts us," Heilig said.

Usually, it takes the DTA about three years to develop a new route. Grocery Express organizers are trying to condense that time into just a few months.

There will be an onboard survey conducted in a few weeks to help determine the number of new riders.

"At this point in time, we're sitting down with the state to help us decide about next year. Our other partners, the Fair Food Access (Campaign), are sitting down with us to talk about how to attract more riders," Heilig said.

The DTA invested $20,000 for the route this fall; the Fair Food Access Campaign provided money for marketing, but the rest of the cost has been handled by the DTA.

"I think it's important for people to understand that we're still on the bubble here. So each ride counts," Heilig said.

Organizers are seeking feedback from riders and community members to help enhance the route. Heilig said the DTA already is receiving positive comments.

"This one lady said she used to go to the store every day, and now she can consolidate her trips and not have to go so many times," Heilig said. "It allows folks to get to a real grocery store rather than a convenience store, which is probably the biggest goal here."

Learn more

For more information about Grocery Express, including a map of the route and a schedule, go to duluthtransit.com.

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