One of the Rainbow Rider busses serving West Central Minnesota, including town of Lowry in the Pope County. (source: Rainbow Rider website)

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Without the Rainbow Rider program in Lowry, Minnesota, Bob Matchinsky wouldn’t be able to get around. 

The public transit system that serves West Central Minnesota is Matchinsky’s lifeline. Wheelchair-bound because of multiple sclerosis, Matchinsky has used the service for the past year and a half to get to doctor’s appointments, his sister’s house, even to DJ’s Taproom down the street from his apartment in Grand Arbor assisted living facility. 

“If it weren’t for Rainbow Rider, I’d just stay at the care center,” he said. “I’m in a power wheelchair. You can’t just go in any vehicle to get somewhere. I need someone with a lift to lift me up (into the vehicle) and drive me around. I can’t come out of the chair because if I come out of it, I have to be lifted back in.” 

Matchinsky said rural transit systems are worth the investment. In his opinion, they help those in need the most – the elderly and the disabled. For just $2, he can travel anywhere within a five-mile radius. The trip to his sister’s, at 5.5 miles away, is $4. Without the transit service, trips anywhere would be cost-prohibitive, he said. 

“Not too long ago, I went to my niece’s first communion. It’s only, like, a mile or a mile and a half to the church. And then I went over to my sister’s to hang out for 45 minutes afterwards,” he said. “It cost me over $100.”  

A new bill called the Investments in Rural Transit Act, the bill was introduced by U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-MN), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in August and seeks to increase federal contributions for operating assistance to rural transit in areas where there is a higher dependency on transit systems. 

The bill would increase the federal share of operating assistance to 80%in areas that meet certain requirements. The Federal Transit Administration already provides support to rural transit organizations, but it can be difficult for some rural communities to come up with the required matching fund to qualify for assistance. 

To qualify for the new bill’s funding, the transit system must serve a county that is either

  • An area of persistent poverty, as defined by the Census as a county with at least 20%of the population living in poverty over the past 30 years.
  • A county where at least 25%of the population is over 65.
  • A county identified as a Health Professional Shortage Area by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
  • Or a county with a population density of no more than 20 people per square mile based on Census data. 

Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, said transit systems in rural America are essential for the rural residents who use them. 

“We hear stories all the time of how important these transit systems are for people to be able to get to work, get to doctors, get to school. It allows them to stay where they are and still have jobs. Some of the people we hear from say they would have to move if they didn’t have transit systems,” she said. “So, obviously, it’s important that these systems remain in place.”

Transit services across the state saw nearly 12 million boardings in 2018, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, . The number is down from its record high of 12.2 million boardings in 2015, but officials say that is more due to greater efficiency in the system that prevented riders in urban areas from having to use multiple buses in order to get where they wanted to go. 

The bill is critical for transit systems as they struggle to deal with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Donahoe said. Like transit systems in larger cities, rural transit systems have seen declines in revenue as people stay home to avoid exposure to Covid-19 or have no school or job to go to. 

“More rural transit systems don’t have the same ridership as transit systems in other areas – riders in those areas may be more likely to be disabled, or to be older people, who are much more hesitant to go out in these times,” she said. 

“And certain facilities have contracts with local transit systems, like colleges contracting to get students from their homes to classes and meat-packing plants contracting to get workers to their jobs. It’s not just the daily fares that generate revenue for these systems.” 

That’s why federal funding for rural transit systems is so important, Donahoe said, not just for transit systems, but for the communities they serve. 

“When the CARES money runs out because it will eventually run out, bills like these are important to the survival of the system, but also in terms of the survival of the communities they exist in, to the extent that these communities are already struggling financially,” she said.  “Losing public transit systems would further damage them as residents would have to move out of those areas.”

Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin agreed. 

“In Wisconsin and across the country, limited public transportation options in our rural communities can often be a significant barrier for folks getting to work, going to the store, seeing the doctor, and more,” Baldwin said. 

“Reliable transit needs support now more than ever, and our bipartisan legislation is about investing in innovative and efficient public transportation….”

With Congress out until mid-September, the likelihood of the bill’s passage as stand-alone legislation is not good. But, it could be included in a fourth Covid-19 relief bill, Donahue said, or there’s a chance it could be added to the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) – the bill that funds America’s Surface Transportation systems. 

Passed in 2015, the FAST Act provided over $305 billion in federal money between 2016 and 2020 to fund surface transportation projects like roads, bridges, transit systems, and railroads. The bill expires on September 30 of this year. 

“From what we’re hearing, they’re not likely to pass new FAST Act legislation either,” Baldwin said. “I think what we’ll see is that there will be an extension, and this (rural transit bill) may get tagged into that. We’ll see.”