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New Routes FOR Rural Roots

January 4, 2013

Light rail. Commuter trains. Buses running on fixed routes. That’s how most people picture public transportation. But they’re focused on big city transit. Lost in that picture are the creative ways many small cities and towns are meeting the mobility needs of rural America.

“Most people don’t know there is such a thing as transit in small towns and rural places,” says Sara Kline, policy director of Reconnecting America. Reconnecting America is a nonprofit organization that focuses on the link between transportation and community development. In a report published earlier this year,

Reconnecting America describes the need for rural transit, the challenges involved in delivering it and various places where it’s thriving.

“These aren’t metro systems, but they’re systems that are meeting the needs … of their populations,” says John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America.

The needs are greater than meets the eye. Although rural areas of 50,000 people or less comprise only about 20 percent of the nation’s total population, they are home to nearly 40 percent of the country’s transit- dependent population — primarily senior citizens, persons with disabilities and low-income individuals.

Changing rural economies are another factor. Traditional sources of local employment — often based on agriculture and natural resources — have shed many jobs. Today’s rural residents are faced with driving farther — and spending more on gas — to find work than previous generations. That’s if they even have a car. More than 1.6 million rural households don’t, according to the Reconnecting America report.

Finding Innovative Solutions

The strong need for more rural transportation options isn’t easily met. Rural roads aren’t usually designed for safe walking or cycling. The buses and trains that once ran between cities and stitched rural America together make fewer stops in fewer places.

Even under the most favorable conditions, public transportation requires subsidies. Rural populations are spread out and destinations are far apart, driving per capita costs higher. With local resources scarce, rural communities are at the mercy of uncertain federal support.

The bottom line: many rural residents are more isolated than ever from jobs, health care, education and other essential needs. The lack of mobility also hurts rural economies as potential customers and employees find it difficult to make the trek to town.

Reconnecting America’s report, “Putting Transit to Work in Mainstream America,” aims to shine a light on the public transportation issues facing rural communities — and some of the innovative strategies and partnerships they’re using to improve mobility. “The good news is we’re finding some very creative best practices in very small cities and towns,” Smith says.

The goal of these communities is to provide more transportation choices — a cornerstone of smart growth — in places where building more highways has often been the one and only answer. “Highways are not always the best solution,” Smith says. “One choice is no choice.”

The 11,000 residents of tiny Allendale County, S.C., are scattered. Most live far from jobs and service and many are too poor to afford cars or too elderly to drive. “The rural Health Center told us that one-third of their appointments were cancelled because people had no way to get there,” says Lynnda Bassham, human services director for the Lower Savannah Council of Governments (LSCOG).

The LSCOG is a regional planning agency that coordinates community development efforts in six counties. Faced with a pressing need for public transportation, Allendale County turned to the LSCOG for help. The result was a trailblazing transit service called the Allendale County Scooter.

“The scooter is the poster child for what you can do with nothing,” Bassham says. “I talk about it all over the country.”

The Allendale County Scooter is a demand-response service. Instead of running according to fixed routes and schedules, vehicles pick up and drop off passengers at requested locations. Demand response is the transit system du jour for rural areas because people are so spread out. According to the Reconnecting America report, 86 percent of all rural transit systems offer this type of service.

What sets the Allendale County Scooter apart is the source of the system’s vehicles. After setting out to start a transit system from scratch, county leaders and the LSCOG changed course when they realized a de facto transit system already existed right under their noses.

Every day, health clinics, senior centers and other human services providers were independently transporting clients in vans and shuttles with plenty of empty seats. Why not coordinate their pickups and dropoffs with ride requests from the general public?

The Allendale County Scooter debuted in 2004 after a mobility manager was hired to match ride requests from the general public with available seats on vehicles operated by participating agencies. “We saw the opportunity to take advantage of what we already had and it worked very well,” Bassham says.

Ridership has doubled since 2004 as the 14-vehicle system now serves more than 1,000 riders a month. A blend of local, state and federal money plus modest fares, fund the Allendale County Scooter. The scooter’s success led neighboring Bamberg County to establish a similar system and set in motion plans to build a regional network of coordinated transportation providers.

Last year, LSCOG opened a new mobility center to support various transit programs — including the Allendale County Scooter — in all six counties it serves. Upgrades include new communications/scheduling software and onboard computers with GPS tracking systems.

“We’ve built a virtual transit network … and we keep making progress,” Bassham says.

Connecting Workers to Jobs

In York County, Maine, public transportation services are provided by the York County Community Action Corporation (YCCAC), a nonprofit human services agency. Home to 197,000 people, York County is dotted with isolated towns — many hugging the scenic coastline where tourism is a driving force in the local economy.

The challenge for coastal hotels, restaurants and other tourist-dependent businesses is to attract the number of workers needed to handle the summer crowds. The challenge for workers is to get to work — or at least it was before the YCCAC responded to a plea for help from business leaders and launched the Shoreline Explorer trolley service in 2006.

The Shoreline Explorer links the county’s inland to the coast with year-round service and connects the coastal communities to each other with seasonal service during the summer. The result? An employment pipeline from the inland city of Sanford — hard hit by manufacturing layoffs — to all the tourist towns begging for workers up and down the coast.

“We made the connection between a high percentage of unemployed people, many of whom don’t have personal vehicles, and a job market with vacancies that weren’t being filled,” says Connie Graber, YCCAC transportation director. Tourists seeing the sights and residents running errands also ride the Shoreline Explorer, relieving congestion on the busy highway connecting the county’s coastal towns.

York County isn’t the first Maine county to connect tourist towns with trollies — think cute buses not streetcars — but it’s the only one that built a system incorporating existing private transit service. “We have three private, for-profit trolley operators, but (their routes) weren’t connected,” Graber says. “We filled the gaps with our trollies and added a route connecting Sanford with the coast.”

Riders must get on and off and pay separate fares to travel the entire route, but the Shoreline Explorer’s unique formula is a winner. “Ridership is growing by leaps and bounds — 2012 was the highest we ever had,” Graber says. Ridership rose to 72,000 from 62,000 in 2011.

State and federal sources account for the bulk of the system’s budget, but the towns and local businesses served by the Shoreline Explorer also chip in — and are happy to do so. One downtown association recently asked what it would cost to add weekend service during the shoulder season, Graber says. The RFTA will make rural transportation history when it launches the nation’s first bus rapid transit system serving a rural area.

High-Level Rural Service

The Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado faces the same mobility challenge as York County — but on steroids. The valley is home to Aspen, a world-class tourist destination with lots of hospitality jobs, but a workforce that lives in other towns. With the average home costing several million dollars, the Aspen housing market is one of the most unaffordable in the country.

The Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) has provided service connecting the valley’s small towns to Aspen and each other since 1983. Today, the RFTA operates a fleet of more than 80 vehicles serving 10 communities in three counties and carrying 4.5 million passengers — locals as well as tourists — a year.

“We have a lot of folks living here who are transit-dependent because they don’t own cars or don’t like to drive in the snow,” Chase says.

Next fall, the RFTA will make rural transportation history when it launches the nation’s first bus rapid transit system serving a rural area. Dubbed the VelociRAFTA, the service will operate along a 40-mile corridor between Aspen in the north and Glenwood Springs in the south.

The 2008 spike in gas prices planted the seed for Veloci- RAFTA, says Dawn Chase, the agency’s marketing and communications manager. Ridership on the RFTA’s conventional bus service from Glenwood Springs to Aspen swelled to standing room only during the gas spike. Many so-called choice riders — people with cars who could drive if they wanted — never returned to their cars when gas prices dipped.

Deciding it was time to upgrade service, the RFTA secured federal funding and won voter approval for a tax increase to build a bus rapid transit system — a.k.a “light rail on wheels,” Chase says. VelociRAFTA will run every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes and make the Glenwood Springs to Aspen run in 60 minutes instead of 90 minutes plus. The system’s 18 buses will make fewer stops, travel in priority lanes that speed their progress through traffic lights and offer on-board Wi-Fi service. “We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for the choice driver,” Chase said.

Convenience isn’t the only carrot. Colorado is one of the greenest states in the union. VelociRAFTA gives riders a chance to help reduce air pollution by leaving their cars in the garage. The buses will run on clean-burning compressed natural gas produced in Colorado.