Revving Up Rural Public Transit

Small communities create unique transportation programs that reduce reliance on cars and improve residents’ local connections.

By: Kalena Thomhave

When the sun rises over Plainview, Nebraska, Arnold Oltjenbruns is already up and ready for work. Beginning at 7:30 A.M., he picks up the kids that he drives to school. “I like hauling the kids the best,” he says. “As soon as they get in the van they’re talking away, and telling me what’s going on.” Oltjenbruns drives Plainview’s “Handivan”—a small, accessible van that provides public transit for Plainview’s 1,200 residents. Whether he’s taking people to school, medical appointments, stores, (or to a nursing home in a neighboring town so that one gentleman could visit his girlfriend), Oltjenbruns and the Handivan can be the difference between isolation and strong social ties in the small northeastern Nebraska city.

Oltjenbruns, a retired farmer, had recently moved to Plainview. He wanted something to do with his free time, took the volunteer job, and got certified to drive the van and assist riders with disabilities. Yet Oltjenbruns, like most rural transit operators, is “much more than just a driver,” he is a companion, according to city administrator Michael Holton. Oltjenbruns laughs as Holton praises his work. “Boy, I don’t know,” he says. “It sounds to me like I maybe should get a raise, doesn’t it?”

Most Americans may view public transportation as a mainstay of urban life, but rural communities like Plainview have embraced public transit. Most rural residents continue to rely on personal vehicles to get around, but some people can’t afford a car or truck. Others are elderly or have illnesses that impede driving. Rural Americans skew older; have more health problems; and must travel greater distances for social visits, health care, and daily chores than city-dwellers. And rural residents—especially African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans—are generally poorer than their urban counterparts.

Today more Americans have given up driving. In 2015, nearly 10 percent of U.S. households did not have a car, a slight increase from 2010, according to the Census Bureau. States with large rural populations like Maine and Vermont have also shown small decreases in car ownership. There has been no statewide change in Colorado even though car ownership in Denver has increased, which may indicate that some rural households have given up their cars. These trends mean small communities may start thinking about new networks or improvements in existing public transit.

However, despite widespread interest in improving public transit in both rural and urban areas, most federal, state, and local officials continue to direct transportation dollars to road-building and maintenance projects. Moreover, the Trump administration has proposed significant cuts to the federal transportation programs that benefit rural communities. Yet Americans say they want more, not less transit: A 2010 Transportation for America poll found that 82 percent of Americans agreed that the U.S. “would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system, such as rail and buses.” In rural areas, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed agreed with that statement.

Interest in new rural public transit opportunities dovetails with concerns about climate change, providing an opening for local leaders and transportation advocates. A 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll found that 61 percent of rural Nebraskans believe that the state should be doing more to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, rural communities, forestry, and natural resources.

“In urban areas, transit is taken as a given,” says transportation consultant Sarah Kline, a former Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) executive. “In rural communities, it’s not necessarily a given—someone has to make it happen.” Making transit happen in rural communities requires an understanding of rural demographics and the unique challenges faced by people who are spread out over great distances.

RURAL COMMUNITIES OFTEN create transportation programs to serve a specific purpose such as driving senior citizens to their medical appointments or ferrying workers to jobs across town or to a larger community nearby, according to Scott Bogren, executive director of the Washington-based Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), which provides technical assistance to rural areas. Holton, Plainview’s city administrator (in Nebraska, cities are municipalities with 800 or more residents), says that the community initially launched the Handivan program to assist seniors. But when Plainview’s Handivan went on the road in 2012, other people wanted to use the service too. So children, church members, and others started taking Handivan trips, paying the $1.50 fare for a single ride, and many purchasing punch cards for multiple rides. On a busy day, Oltjenbruns may get 15 to 20 calls for pickups.

However, establishing rural transit programs can be challenging. “The need [in Plainview] has been there for quite some time,” says Holton. Yet, “there is a resistance in the culture in a lot of small rural communities: people have an independent nature, and they depend on their neighbors, their children, and their friends [for rides],” he adds.

Jordan Rasmussen, a policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based rural advocacy organization, agrees. “America as a whole is a car culture, but in rural America, in particular, your car or your truck is your key to independence,” she says. Indeed, this independent streak may affect support for public transportation. Bob Allen, who leads the Transportation Justice Program at Urban Habitat, an Oakland, California, group, says that people weigh the benefits and burdens of driving versus transit differently.

“When you take public transit, the burdens are privatized—[you] wait for the bus [and] go by the schedule,” Allen says. But everyone enjoys the benefits of public transportation—such as cleaner air. Conversely, Allen points out that when a person drives, the benefits are privatized (it’s your time), but the burdens are shared: “Everyone deals with the pollution [and] the cost,” he says.

Persuading people that public transit can foster independent living is an idea that local officials work hard to get across. Holton explains that the Handivan service enables residents to preserve their independence by allowing them to get chores done and socialize. Isolation is a major problem for the elderly, and public transportation may provide seniors with their only opportunities to interact with people.

Social isolation can lead to poor health outcomes for older adults, increasing the risk of cognitive decline as well as upping the risk of heavy drinking and smoking. In rural areas, transit is often “a little rolling community,” Bogren says. Sometimes the first person to board the bus might want to be dropped off last because they spend their trip talking to people. “That’s their social time,” he explains, “Otherwise, they’re in their homes.” Children also benefit. Oltjenbruns noticed that some of the children he picked up to take to school had trouble waking up in the morning. He talked to their parents about the school breakfast program. Those kids got enrolled and are now getting nutritious meals each day.

“People design well-meaning [transit] policies with the assumption that people can just magically appear,” says Bogren. “There’s no magic to it—it just takes understanding those communities to make those trips happen,” he says.

Plainview’s van did not appear out of thin air. City officials and a team of organizations, including the Center for Rural Affairs, surveyed Plainview residents about the types of quality-of-life improvements they wanted. During town hall meetings to discuss the results, residents called for public transit. The Nebraska Department of Roads and the federal formula program for rural public transit programs helped fund the $40,000 accessible van. Plainview pitched in 20 percent of that cost. Holton believes that transit programs like the Handivan help rural residents “stay here—and be in a small community.” Officials plan to evaluate whether they will need to add a second van, but for now, their transit program works well and is one of the ties that bind Plainview together.

TUPELO, Mississippi, population 36,000, is the largest municipality in the state without a public transportation system. The city is home to several major employers, including the largest rural hospital in the country, the University of Mississippi-Tupelo, and Itawamba Community College. However, job creation is an ongoing concern in a city that has had high rates of unemployment. Though Tupelo’s unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in September, that’s down from 9.3 percent from five years ago—in a state that has one of the highest rates of joblessness in the country.

The absence of public transportation may exacerbate unemployment. A 2010 Transportation Equity Network report found that public transportation projects create, on average, 20 percent more jobs than comparable road and highways projects. These jobs, the national advocacy group said, “include the workers who construct the infrastructure and operate transit, as well as the jobs created by suppliers to the construction industry and [in the retail sector] by the increased spending of workers in the local economy.”

In Tupelo, the Lifecore Health Group, a mental-health service provider, currently operates a dial-a-ride service known as Climb-Up (similar to Plainview’s Handivan), funded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation. What started out as a client-only service morphed into a community-wide, all-access, public transportation program after the state increased funding, according to Sheila Staples, Climb-Up’s project supervisor. The group is now looking to expand the program.

a fixed-route transit system pilot program. But fixed-bus routes can’t serve everyone, according to Charlie Dickson, the CTAA’s deputy director. The organization has partnered with Climb-Up and Toyota North America (the automaker has a plant northwest of Tupelo) to work on transit ideas for the city, and Dickson believes that more flexible components like a flexible, fixed-route that allows riders to request rides to and from locations near a principal route would be a better fix.

Tupelo has debated setting up a public transit system for nearly a decade. Community surveys have underscored the need for a comprehensive public transit system, but politics continues to get in the way, even though many low-income people don’t have a working vehicle, according to Jim Casey, a Tupelo public transportation advocate. Roughly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level, and the elderly make up nearly 15 of the city’s residents. Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton has recommended that the city council approve the Climb-Up proposal. But some council members still have doubts. “I’m concerned about the cost of it, I’m concerned about how many people are going to ride it, and I’m concerned about safety,” said City Councilman Markel Whittington in a September city council session.

Climb-Up’s Staples says that she “believe[s] without a doubt” that the council will approve a transit project in early 2018, and that her group has a good shot at the contract. But, “whether the city backs us or not, we’re going to do something,” she says. If the Tupelo effort is successful, Dickson says the next step is to figure out “how [to] link this up with the other transportation providers in the region” like the Northeast Mississippi Community Services which covers nearby counties and Oxford University Transit that serves the city of Oxford.

The search for viable options to combat climate change gives these quests for new and improved rural transportation options more urgency. “Transit work in the current political movement needs to be centered in the climate justice movement,” Allen of Urban Habitat tells the Prospect. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s National Climate Assessment, rural regions are more vulnerable to climate change than urban areas because of their isolation, dependence on natural resources, higher poverty rates, and older populations.

Warmer temperatures and extreme natural disasters are more likely to disrupt rural economies, which may rely on one industry, than economically-diversified metropolitan regions. Some rural communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change. In the Southeast, higher than average temperatures have produced crop losses in Georgia and the North Carolina agricultural industries. Warmer water temperatures along the Gulf Coast has increased the risk of illness from bacteria-laden shellfish. And wildfires in the West, like the deadly blazes that recently devastated California, are expected to become more intense and frequent, exacerbated by drought and dry winds.

Introducing public transit in small communities helps tackle climate change by taking cars off the road and providing opportunities to showcase innovations like greenhouse gas-busting fuels. When the North Central Montana Transit program began operating in 2009, local officials expected a few hundred riders in the early months. Instead, they got thousands. Concerned about the amount of fuel that the buses used as they traveled across an area the size of Maryland every day, NCMT officials connected with researchers at Montana State University-Northern to explore other options. In early 2010, the transit system started using a biodiesel fuel made from camelina, an oil-seed plant that local wheat farmers cultivate. Biodiesel is a cleaner-burning fuel that is renewable and biodegradable. “Here’s the bottom line,” says Allen of Urban Habitat. “You have to make a political decision. Are you always going to prioritize the car?”

The answer from Washington is not encouraging. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget includes several cuts to key public transportation programs, including programs that specifically benefit small and rural communities. While the budget includes full funding for transit formula programs next year, it cuts funding in the following two years and drastically cuts funding after the expiration of the FAST Act in 2020. Trump has proposed eliminating Small Starts grants that fund transit investments outside major metropolitan areas and TIGER grants that prioritize innovative projects. The House and Senate budget plans both slash Small Starts funding. As for TIGER, the House budget zeroes out funding, while the Senate plan boosts dollars for the program. Yet rural communities’ limited ability to generate their own funding streams means that these regions are even more reliant on federal transit allocations than urban areas.

The upside of this budget dilemma is that smaller communities may be able to use planning tools like participatory budgeting more effectively than larger regions. Participatory budgeting is an innovative, three-decade-old strategy that allows residents to decide together how to allocate a pot of government money. Giving residents in rural communities like Plainview and Tupelo the ability to determine next steps on public transit projects, through mechanisms like participatory budgeting, could increase community buy-in for projects as they move from conception to implementation.

Some small communities also may be able to create informal “models of collective and cooperative transportation,” says Allen. In California’s poor and isolated Central Valley region, resident drivers known as raiteros offer rides to fellow residents and farm workers, in exchange for a few dollars or perhaps dinner. The Latino community has operated this nontraditional form of transit independently. But the city of Huron recently received funds from a 11th Hour Project/Just Transit Challenge competition to provide electric cars, dispatchers, and training and higher pay for the drivers. The mayor of Huron, Ray Léon, told The New York Times that he thinks of the program, “Green Raiteros,” as “indigenous Ubers.”

As more people, particularly the young, leave rural areas for cities, the remaining residents will face greater employment, health care, and social challenges. Bolstering public transit options in rural America will help people stay where they want to live and be fully engaged in their hometowns. Political and community support are vital to jumpstarting and maintaining healthy transit programs. A “local [transit] system is doing well when the people who never ride [it] know of the system, its value, and feel good about it,” says Bogren.

In Plainview, Holton, the city administrator, makes sure that everyone feels good about the Handivan. The van gets always gets a prime spot in local parades.“It’s a visible part of the community at all times,” Holton says, because even if you don’t use it now, “there may come a time [when] you need to.”

Original article by The American Prospect

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