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Area residents plan public transit future

Mick Scott adds to a posterboard showing local travel needs. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Local residents gathered to collectively brainstorm about public transit Tuesday, Feb. 5, in the Pine River-Backus School commons.

The discussion was led by members of the Region Five Development Commission, which formed the Region Five Regional Transportation Coordinating Council with help from grant funding to identify transit options in Wadena, Cass, Crow Wing, Todd and Morrison counties, look at gaps and transportation needs and ultimately develop solutions that approve transit for Region Five.

The RFRTCC gathered stakeholders, community groups and businesses who deal with transit to identify current transit options. Among those were:

• Faith in Action, which provides rides for those who have no other options.

• Cass County Health, Human and Veterans Services, which provides rides under strict requirements.

• Brainerd & Crow Wing Public Transit, which operates the Pine River Public Transit bus within Pine River and three miles out of city limits.

Representatives from stakeholders to community members helped to identify local transit option shortfalls. Most transit options have strict guidelines that lead to restrictions, especially when it comes to regular transit needs. For example, there is no real option for commuter traffic going to and from work.

In addition to a lack of set scheduled transit options, even dial-a-ride services like those provided by Faith in Action and county services are finding it more and more difficult to provide rides to medical appointments, grocery stores and other places.

FIA Executive Director Theresa Eclov said there are new barriers for volunteer drivers. Due to legislation meant to regulate Uber and Lyft, volunteer drivers with FIA now face new expenses from taxes and insurance. As a result it is harder to recruit new drivers, and some drivers are setting strict limits on how far they travel.

For county services, volunteer drivers do not get reimbursed for driving to pick up a passenger, which can be discouraging for drivers who may have to travel long distances to pick up a passenger and then drive them long distances to their destination and back again.

County transit options are also limited by age, destination and other factors that not all passengers will match.

Discussion participants had an opportunity to share their opinions on resources, shortfalls, needs and solutions on large poster boards in the back of the room. They identified a lack of Uber, transit to work, volunteer driver shortages and expense of medical transport.

They said they do or would use transit for grocery store trips, work commutes, non-emergency medical trips and social interaction. They recognized that funding, lack of bus networks and coordination issues will be barriers to more local transit. They also noted a difficulty in recruiting drivers and special medical needs of some passengers.

People suggested a regional group network of transit with solar powered heated bus stops, a transit hub for connecting larger scheduled transportation routes, a regional dispatcher for transit or a merger between existing transit entities.

This was the second meeting in a two-year planning process with Region Five. The first meeting in December was mostly aimed at Todd and Wadena county groups. The next meeting Tuesday, April 2, will be at the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd, focusing on Crow Wing County residents. Yet another meeting will be Tuesday, June 4, at Sprout in Little Falls in Morrison County.

Stakeholders include the region's county social services departments, Minnesota Area Agencies on Aging, Workforce Development, public/private transportation providers, human services agencies, transportation and human services advocates, veteran service organizations, Minnesota Continuum of Care Coordinators, Centers for Independent Living, health services, as well as public and private funders of transportation services.