A Closer Look at Rural Transit Systems

Posted on May 17, 2012 by By Nicole Schlosser

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METRO Magazine reported in our February/March issue on small transit agencies in urbanized areas that face fierce competition for funding and cope with rising fuel prices and rapidly growing paratransit demands. Rural transit systems are dealing with much of the same, when providing what dwindling amount of service they can to a predominantly low-income population that depends on them for medical transportation and a way to get to jobs.

A report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), “The U.S. Rural Population and Scheduled Intercity Transportation in 2010: A Five-Year Decline in Transportation Access,” shows that that assistance is going away. As many as 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity transportation between 2005 and 2010. That put the number of rural residents with access to intercity air, bus, ferry or rail transportation to 89%, down from 93% five years ago.

BTS, part of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, reported that 8.9 million rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation in 2010, up from 5.4 million in 2005.

BTS defined access to transportation as living within 25 miles from a non- or small-hub airport, bus station, ferry terminal or rail station providing intercity service, and as 75 miles from a medium- or large-hub airport.

Distance, remote areas
Distance is indeed an obstacle for many rural system operators, with people in need spread out over remote areas. Western Maine Transportation Services (WMTS) serves 38 communities ranging from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people in three counties bordering New Hampshire and Canada, and provides fixed-route, paratransit, and Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Friends & Family Rides and Volunteer Rides programs, primarily for people who are Medicaid-eligible for non-emergency transportation trips.

Maine’s land mass is almost as large as the other New England states combined. The three-county area that WMTS serves is over 4,400 square miles.

“It’s a pretty daunting task trying to get service out,” Pat Christian, GM, WMTS, says. “Some areas are unincorporated, so there are not many people there. Obviously, we can’t meet everyone’s needs, but we try to meet as many as possible for these people who are most in need of mobility.”

Additionally, many of the various remote areas that St. Johnsbury, Vt.-based Rural Community Transportation Inc. (RTC) services don’t have cellphone access. GPS doesn’t always pick up and isn’t always accurate, Sandy Thorpe, transit coordinator, RTC, says.

One of the major drawbacks RTC faces is the fact that it has a two-hour headway between point A and point B, Thorpe adds.  

“You have to allow two hours for a round-trip run, [even though] you only have 20 miles of travel distance but you’ve got lots of stops, and people getting on and off, and sometimes you have wheelchairs,” she says. “For a lot of people it’s very difficult, and frustrating for them to say, ‘I have to wait for two hours for the next bus before I can get back home after I finish an appointment.’ With additional funding we’d be able to run a whole other set of routes.”

Harold Jennisen, transit manager of Lowry, Minn.-based Rainbow Rider, says that the remoteness of its rural areas and the lack of sufficient funding makes expanding its service nearly impossible. For example, he adds, if a bus picks up one person, it may travel 20 miles one way to get them to major hubs for groceries and medical care.

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