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County bus service gaining riders

Natalie Kruchowski, 4, boards the Heartland Express this week on her way to preschool. The bus service works well for her family, her mother said. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

Little Natalie Kruchowski, 4, takes the Heartland Express bus to preschool twice a week. She anxiously awaits the bus at daycare, excited to see her bus driver, Roger, who she says is her favorite.

She is just one of the many people who use the Hubbard County Heartland Express for public transportation.

"It's not just for the elderly or disabled, it's for everyone," said Linda Bair, Heartland Express transit coordinator.

Heidi Kruchowski said her daughter, Natalie, started riding the bus from daycare to preschool out of necessity.

"If we didn't have this available she probably wouldn't be able to go," Heidi said. She would have to leave work to transport her daughter.

At first, Heidi admits she was apprehensive about letting her 4-year-old ride the bus by herself. But she did a practice run and saw that the bus drivers pull up to the door of her daycare and make sure her daughter can't get off the bus until someone is outside and waves.

"I've been so impressed and Natalie loves to ride the bus," Heidi said.

Children who ride the bus get a punch card that is prepaid so they don't have to bring money with each time they ride. Then, an envelope is sent home with the child when it's time to add more money to the card.

Buses run in the city of Park Rapids from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Monday through Friday. Riders call 732-3500 to make an appointment.

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 and riders should allow for a 15 minute window for the pick up time.

Heartland Express recently contracted with Paul Bunyan Transit in Bemidji for dispatching.

"It has allowed us to group rides more often," Bair said.

Each of the buses has a locater so the dispatchers know exactly where each bus is and where it is going. It makes the operation more efficient, Bair said.

"We've increased ridership 23 percent for February, March and April over the previous three months," she said. "It's also an increase over last year."

In 2010, 16,700 rides were given in the Park Rapids city limits and 14,700 were given countywide. Of those rides, 3,500 were from volunteer drivers.

Riders need to be more patient as a result of the new dispatching system, Bair said. Because more group riding is done, people need to allow for a wider window for the pick up time.

"It's been an adjustment but overall works well," Bair said.

Because of efficiencies, such as contracting with Bemidji for dispatching, the fare has remained the same. It is $1.50 for a one-way trip.

Heartland Express will be having a daily bus available to bicycle riders who want to ride the Heartland Trail one way from Park Rapids to Nevis or Akeley. The bus goes through Akeley at 4 p.m. and Nevis at 4:15 p.m. The bus stops are still to be determined. Riders can call 732-9328 for more information.

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.

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

Also, for a few days during the 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, preschool and other programs.

Daycares in town often take groups to the library or other events, Bair said.

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.

"We work with Social Services, Medicaid, Veterans Service as well," Bair said.

The volunteers' only compensation is mileage reimbursement. Bair has eight volunteer drivers and they traveled 56,000 miles in 2010 using their own vehicles.

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.

Bair is looking to expand the city bus service to up to 2 miles outside the city limits. She is trying to figure out where the need is and encourages people to call her at 732-9328 if they are interested in utilizing the bus service.

She is also looking to coordinate with the Let's Go Fishing Program to get people to Fish Hook Lake to fish and Heritage Living Center to get some outings during the month.

Wednesday the Hubbard County board gave its approval to the purchase of a new transit bus for $72,000 to accommodate increased ridership.

Hubbard County Social Services Director Daryl Bessler said the buses get more expensive to maintain as they age, and when driving in town, they incur lots of stop-and-go mileage.

The Department of Transportation pays 80 percent of the costs; Hubbard County the remainder. The county is looking into whether Heritage Living Center might use the old bus.

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