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Heartland Express seeing increased number of riders within Park Rapids

Public transportation in Park Rapids and Hubbard County has seen a spike in riders - especially those who use wheelchairs or scooters.

Linda Bair, Heartland Express transit coordinator, said buses have been busiest in the city of Park Rapids.

Two buses run in the city. One runs from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. and the second bus comes on up to five hours as needed.

Riders are picked up at their front doors and at the time of their choice, which is different than a route schedule. Bair said calling 24-hours in advance is preferred but isn't required at this point.

To accommodate the busy city schedule, a part-time dispatcher was hired to solely take calls for city busses. This addition has helped tremendously with scheduling, Bair said.

"What's happened is now 22 percent of our riders are using a wheelchair and that takes a lot more time," she said. "The drivers need to get out of the bus, help the person into the lift, strap in the wheelchair."

To be able to give rides to as many people as possible, the dispatcher has been trying to schedule doubled up rides whenever possible.

The fare is $1.50, one way.

"Also, we have a shopping run each week, for example, at a discounted rate," Bair said.

Passengers pay 75 cents for a round trip ticket to head to grocery stores and other establishments on Tuesdays.

The program is funded from a variety of sources, 85 percent is state and federal money and the remainder from fares, city and county funds and contracts.

"Typically, we have about 2,000 riders in a month with most in the city," Bair said.

The city contributes $1,500 a month for the service, Bair said. "It's a bargain," she said.

Another bus departs each morning, heading to northern Hubbard County to pick up Developmental Achievement Center (DAC) clients and others heading to Park Rapids.

And twice a month, the bus heads to Bemidji for several hours. Bemidji's municipal buses transport passengers within the city.

Heartland Express began serving Hubbard County in 1989 when the county entered a contractual agreement with the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Transit.

Initially, most of the riders were elderly, Bair said. But as the system became more established, kids became passengers. The children, who are secured in seatbelts, are transported from day care to summer activities, ECFE and other programs.

"Now 22 percent of our riders are kids," she said.

On occasion, the buses have been used for shuttles for community events and evacuations.

In addition to paid employees, a corps of volunteer drivers provides transportation to appointments that cannot be accommodated by the bus schedules. Most often, those trips are to regional medical centers.

Heartland Transit also provides transportation for Hubbard County veterans and has a contract with the Veterans Service Office, Bair said.

The volunteers' only compensation is the IRA mileage reimbursement.

The ultimate goal of Heartland Express is to provide rides for as many people as possible.

With money in short supply, Bair said the only way to keep up with the numbers of riders is to look at efficiencies.

"We might need to look at requiring at least a 24 hour notice for riding the bus," she said.

Nothing has been decided yet, though.

For more information on Heartland Express, call Bair at 732-9328.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561