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Greater Minnesota transit spending headed off track

Funding for the public transportation system in Greater Minnesota is falling off pace for what it would cost to pay for growing ridership estimates, said a state report released this week.

Laura Whetter (left), activities director for Edgewood Vista Assisted Living in Hermantown, stores a walker from a resident who just boarded the Arrowhead Transit bus, as Pat Meisner, another resident, prepares to use the lift get on board for a ride Tuesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Laura Whetter (left), activities director for Edgewood Vista Assisted Living in Hermantown, stores a walker from a resident who just boarded the Arrowhead Transit bus, as Pat Meisner, another resident, prepares to use the lift get on board for a ride. (2017 file / News Tribune)
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Funding for the public transportation system in Greater Minnesota is falling off pace for what it would cost to pay for growing ridership estimates, said a state report released this week.

By 2025, the tax-supported transit system that serves Minnesotans outside the Twin Cities metro area is scheduled to accommodate 17 million outstate rides per year - a 40 percent increase over today's ridership. The report showed that increases were attributed to an aging population and the millennial generation, which uses alternate forms of transportation more frequently.

"As the population of Greater Minnesota grows and ages, the need for public transit also increases," said Tim Henkel, assistant commissioner for modal planning and program management, in a Minnesota Department of Transportation news release. "Greater Minnesota transit systems continue to add service hours to reach more communities and increase ridership. As ridership and hours of service have increased, so have costs."

The updated Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan showed that a $10 million annual surplus now would be siphoned off in coming years and could grow into a $120 million funding gap by 2025. The MnDOT-generated report shows the cost to meet 100 percent of the Greater Minnesota transit need is expected to rise sharply in the coming years - going from $140.7 million in 2017 to $158.2 million in 2020, $200.5 million in 2025 and $246 million in 2030.

State legislators have set a more realistic target to cover 90 percent of the public transit need between now and 2025. But new legislative funding changes have slowed the rate of funding increases, reducing Greater Minnesota transit spending by $16 million in 2018, said MnDOT in its news release.

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"If they reduce funding then we will have no choice but to reduce service," Arrowhead Transit marketing coordinator Larry Rodgers told the News Tribune.

Arrowhead Transit is based in Gilbert, and offers mostly Dial-A-Ride services to eight surrounding counties, including St. Louis County, while providing more than 600,000 annual rides as of 2016, according to a separate 2017 Transit Report from MnDOT.

Rodgers said the majority of Arrowhead Transit riders are without other forms of transportation. Because of that, there is a need to keep single-ride fares between $1-$1.75. Affordable operations would not be possible without local, state and federal funding, he said, adding that public funding keeps transit services from outpricing the average rider.

"If we increased our fares by sevenfold we could self-fund," he said, "but it simply wouldn't work."

The hope from MnDOT would appear to be that by sounding alarm bells now, worst-case scenarios can be planned for and diverted. The Duluth Transit Authority issued a brief statement to that effect, but declined to address specifics, saying it was "too early" to comment on long-term projections.

"We will be in routine budget and planning discussions with MnDOT to determine the impact of the (transit investment plan) and future funding," said DTA interim general manager Ben Herr.

Falling short of its public transit obligation to Greater Minnesota would be a new scenario for the state, Rodgers said.

"MnDOT has been very generous to our system over the years," he said. "The state of Minnesota has always been a community oriented state and society."

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A 90 percent coverage rate would help to correct transit disparities for people in rural and underserved areas. Also, a federal judge's 2015 approval of the state's Olmstead Plan ushered in new frontiers for public transit by mandating access for more people with disabilities.

To help meet its goals and mandates, the state gave operations such as Arrowhead Transit grant funding to create new services. Notable locally, Arrowhead Transit opened its now popular service in Hermantown last year, and the DTA began a series of new cross-city routes on a two-year grant.

The report this week "showed that after 2020, the 90 percent target will be harder to achieve," Henkel said.

Underfunding transportation means some riders won't be able to live in their homes as long, Rodgers said, creating new cost burdens for the state and outcomes pricier than funding the transit system.

"It's a huge cost in the long run if they want a situation where you have people of limited means and want to reduce their transportation options," he said. "Our service allows lots of people to live in much cheaper living places than they would require if we didn't provide them transportation to places like stores and medical facilities."

Breakout

See the plan

To view the Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan visit online at:

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minnesotago.org/index.php?cID=435

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