ST. PAUL — Minnesota and South Dakota rural transit officials on Tuesday, June 8, highlighted the changes they'd made to support their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and called on lawmakers to boost investments in their services.

The officials on Tuesday told members of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development that they'd quickly scaled up cleaning and COVID-19 mitigation measures last year as the illness bore down on the region and shifted their services to better provide for customers.

And many of those practices could remain in place, they said as transit providers transition out of the pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., who chairs the subcommittee, said she'd teamed up with Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., to help boost transit investments in rural communities and lauded the groups for their resilience during the pandemic.

“It strikes me that as this year has been so devastating to so many Americans, we have seen at the same time really important leaps forward in innovation and trying new things and figuring things out in different ways,” Smith said.

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Across the country, rural transit providers took a hit in ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic, directors told the committee. And company leaders said they pivoted to transporting patients seeking COVID-19 tests or vaccines and to delivering meals to those who struggled to access them.

Brandon Nurmi, assistant director for Arrowhead Transit in northeastern Minnesota, said that between May of 2020 and 2021, the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program delivered meal boxes, school lunches and other food supports to 95,165 individuals in 35,499 households.

"One of the really big things we were able to learn during COVID is all the different community partners that we have in the area and all the different services that we could do with all of these different partners," Nurmi said.

Nurmi said he hoped that those new relationships would allow Arrowhead Transit to continue adding programming and he, along with other transit leaders from around the country, said they'd continue cleaning routines and passenger safety measures recommended by public health officials.

"We've learned that this was a really good idea, that we should've been doing this from the beginning," Barbara Cline, executive director of Prairie Hills Transit in Spearfish, S.D., said of her group's enhanced health and safety measures. “We may not be done with this crisis, so we want to be prepared for that."

Rounds, the panel's ranking member, said he hoped transit groups would put to work federal COVID-19 relief dollars going out across the country as part of the American Relief Plan Act. And afterward, he said, Congress should focus on getting funding out to the rural service providers.

“Moving past the pandemic, it will be imperative to get these rural transit systems operating in a way that really improves upon the pre-pandemic norms,” Rounds said.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com