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Morris Transit celebrates milestones

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

When at work, Beth Heinrich probably has more conversations interrupted than anyone around.

The affable coordinator for Morris Transit usually speaks just a few sentences before her phone rings and she has to set up a transit pick-up. Then it rings again. And again.

Heinrich patiently takes the calls in stride -- many times she knows who the callers by their voice -- because she knows that running the transit system was much more complicated and hectic back in the day.

"The cell phone system was a godsend," she said with a laugh.

But it's more than technology that has kept the transit system rolling into its fifth decade.

On Monday, March 8, Morris Transit will celebrate 35 years as a city service. But public transit in Morris has been around, in some way, shape or form, since 1945.

Despite its long history, transit in in the city has never been more popular. Morris Transit set its ridership record in 2008, breaking the mark set in 2007. The 2007 ridership total beat the previous mark in 1997. And in 2009, ridership totals were the third-highest in its history.

From its inception in 1975 to March 3, 2010, more than 1.67 million riders have used Morris Transit.

"I look at Morris as a quilt," Heinrich said. "We have all these different neighborhoods and businesses. The one common thread connecting them all is Morris Transit. We get people from the university downtown, and from there we get them back home. We get people to and from appointments, and we get people out to where they want to have fun. A lot of communities like ours don't have that."

Morris Transit has five vehicles on the streets from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.

Handicapped accessible, the vehicles can also accommodate bicyclists who want to transport their bikes to a location. Daycare and school kids use Morris Transit for rides home. Heinrich said with a smile that once parents of incoming University of Minnesota, Morris students find out how well the system operates, they might think twice about buying their kids a car to use at school.

According to research conducted in the 1980s by a UMM student, Charles Teberg started Morris' first taxi service in 1945 after serving in World War II. Teberg relied on taxis when in larger cities during his military service and believed a system could work in Morris.

And it did, to an extent. Teberg sold the taxi service after one year, and several owners, including Roy Lucken (1951 to 1959) and Gail Whitmer (1960 to 1968) ran a service until Whitmer got out of the business.

Morris had taxi service off and on until 1970, when the Little Flower Cab Co. started with a city subsidy. Gilbert and Barb Schmidgall ran a taxi service with subsidy money -- thanks to a public vote -- until 1975. On March 8, 1975, the city dissolved its contract with the Schmidgalls and by April had an agreement with the state for a grant to operate an area-wide public transit system, which consisted of a used police car and a 16-passenger Winnebago mini-bus.

Some 60 years later, public transit is still around in Morris, and thanks to subsidies that keep fares low, going strong.

Bonnie Hausman was the transit coordinator from 1975 to 2005, with Heinrich stepping in that year. Driver Linda Carver has been with the service, off and on, since 1975, Heinrich said.

The staff includes Annette Veum, Linda Hoffman, Lois Sperr, Tom Leuty, Lori Honer, Lynn Bright, Jeff Lee, Sandy Thorstad, Carver and Heinrich.

"They are all part of making Morris Transit successful on a daily basis," Heinrich said.

Many of the transit staff have been with the service for some time, which might be why the riders who get used to the service become regulars, she said.

"They get to know the people and we get to know them," Heinrich said. "There's a real longevity here."

Changes in attitudes about public transit and, in general, society, have influenced ridership, she said.

"Recently, there was grant money to promote reading and all the daycares were encouraged to send kids to the library," Heinrich said. "We had a lot of riders because of that. The town has gotten bigger, and people who are disabled aren't staying home anymore. They may be in a wheelchair but they still get out and go to Willie's or McDonald's.

"People who go to church might have wondered, 'Do I call neighbors for rides?' Now, they call transit -- they know it's our job. It gives them such a sense of freedom and independence."

Ridership might continue to grow as younger generations who grew up with transit systems age, she said.

"It's tough for older people to lose their car when they can't drive anymore," Heinrich said. "Now, I think when people get older and to the point that they lose their car, it's not that big of a deal. I think people (in younger age groups) are more aware of transit, they're used to it and more apt to use it."