In 2011, Pine River’s Ride With Us Bus was facing a dilemma. Increase ridership or face cuts in the budget.
On that point there’s good news, then there’s bad news.
For Pine River’s only public transit, 2012 was a good year. In January of last year the Pine River Journal reported that the service experienced its highest ridership month on record.
That was just the beginning. Valarie Kuschel, transit administrator, said the dial-a-ride service ridership increased 11 percent in 2012 alone.
“That is 1,000 more riders, so that is great for a service our size,” Kuschel said.
For 2012, Kuschel had set a goal of 35 riders per day, but instead got an average of 37 riders per day. Kuschel said the increase was likely due to word of mouth.
“People are learning about it more, and it’s out there. People are talking about it. I just think word spread,” she said.
This increase is one that is noticed, especially by bus driver Curt Peterson.
“When I took this over 13 years ago, if I had 20-25 a day I had a busy day. Now if I have 25 riders a day it’s a slow day,” Peterson said. “I’d like to see us have 50-70 a day. So the ridership has increased over the years. I’ve tried to push different things. People have found out how convenient it is, and I guess they like the way they’re treated.”
Joyce Vaseka, a rider since 2004, agreed. “I think it’s excellent. Curt is an excellent driver and he’s very helpful to us.”
Though the service had approximately 777 riders per month in 2012, the state of Minnesota demanded an increase from roughly 621 riders a month to 1,000 per month. Because of this the funding they depend on was cut from $71,600 to $63,000, a cut that necessitated changes.
As of the first of the year what was once a five-day service now only runs Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Thanks to this two-day cut, Peterson’s hours have also been cut drastically from 40 hours to 24 per week, but to him that’s not the biggest issue.
“The biggest change is the hardship. The people don’t like it. Some of the businesses didn’t like it because they had to change their schedules around and such,” Peterson said. “I’d like to see it get back to normal.”
Due to the recent cut in hours, Tuesday, Jan. 8, was a very busy day. The bus was booked full all day long, and if business continues this way passengers might actually be turned down for lack of space on the bus. This is one of the hardships Peterson would rather just avoid.
Though the bus’ future is uncertain, many people still find it important. Rides with the bus cost only $1 each way within city limits, and even if a rider took the bus twice a day for five days a week (in the past) they would only be spending $160 a month for travel. Between gas, payments, insurance, tabs and maintenance, as Peterson explained, you couldn’t own a car for that price.
Kuschel said this is why it is such a valuable service.
“It is very important to the area because we serve a number of elderly people who are either no longer comfortable driving or they just find it to be a lot of hassle,” she said. “Our citizens of Pine River really appreciate that and need that service. A lot of the people that we service don’t have those kinds of funds to pay.”
“I don’t have a car, so the bus is real important to me. I don’t want them to take it away,” Vaseka said. “I’d have to pay someone to take me grocery shopping or to my hair appointments.”
Vaseka rides the bus once a week for a hair appointment, twice if she needs groceries. But when she does get groceries she is one of many riders whose ride is often paid for. That is because the Ride With Us Bus has traditionally benefitted from a lot of support from the Pine River City Council and local businesses.
The Pine River Family Market pays bus fares for passengers shopping there on Tuesdays. Similarly, the Riverside Villas pays for its residents’ rides to the grocery store on Thursdays.
In spite of the cuts, Kuschel has seen the ridership increase in the past, and she hopes to see even more this year. The Ride With Us Bus currently serves the city of Pine River, and those within 3 miles of the official city limits, but that might not always be the case. Kuschel has been looking into ways to increase accessibility for the bus.
“Brainerd currently has one bus that comes to Jenkins every morning, I do believe,” she said. “Kind of an easy shoe-in for us would be just to take a couple runs every so often to Jenkins. Instead of driving all the way to Brainerd, we would just connect with the Jenkins link.”
That’s not all; Kuschel has received occasional requests from Backus residents looking for expansion of the service to the north. The possibility is not out of the question, but it would require research and demand before any real decisions could be made.
Regardless of what happens next, Kuschel recognizes that the Ride With Us Bus cannot survive on its own. She explained that it is important that residents and customers alike communicate with them either by visiting city council meetings and calling or visiting city hall.
“We run solely on our customers, and if our customers don’t talk then we go away,” Kuschel said.