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Local fares help support strong Morris Transit system

Morris Transit staff (left to right): Annette Veum, Beth Heinrich (Transit Coordinator), Sandy Thorstad Lori Riley, Lois Sperr, Tom Leuty, Linda Hoffman, Lynn Bright, and Jeff Lee. Not pictured is driver Victor Gades.

MORRIS -- On an average day, the Morris Transit system serves a broad cross-section of the community. From students to seniors, it's hard to quantify who uses the service most.

Since the city of Morris took over the transit system in 1975, ridership has steadily increased, from about 21,000 rides in a year in 1975 to a high of 63,725 rides in 2008.

Ridership was down slightly in 2012, but City Finance Director Deb Raasch said weather often affects year-end totals – in good weather, fewer people take the bus around town.

Morris Transit is one of 59 transit systems operating in greater Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Although the city is responsible for a percentage of the operating costs, strong local ridership has ensured that the system is funded almost entirely through local fares.

Day-to-day operations

Morris Transit offers curb-to-curb bus service within the city of Morris. During busy hours – Monday through Friday from about 7:30 to 5:30 – there are four buses running in the city.

Although many riders schedule their trips in advice, Transit Coordinator Beth Heinrich regularly takes calls from residents needing a pick-up and drop off around town.

Fares offer incentives for scheduling rides early: on a weekday with two hours notice, a ride is just $1.25, but jumps to $2.50 without advance notice. Rides are also $2.50 on weekends and evenings after 6 p.m.

“It's really a benefit for us when [riders] plan ahead,” said Heinrich.

During business hours, Morris Transit also makes hourly stops at Keyrow Apartments, Willie's SuperValu and the University of Minnesota, Morris at a reduced rate.

“We try to keep it real simple, but try to serve as many people as we can,” said Heinrich.

Local riders represent a diverse cross-section of the Morris community, said Heinrich. Parents use Morris Transit to get their children to and from after-school programs, seniors take the bus to appointments or for errands, and UMM students use the system to get around town.

“The whole trend is changing,” said Heinrich. “Everyone is getting aware of how green it is and how nice it is that one vehicle is running instead of all these vehicles. We're a very smart town.”

Fares provide local funding

Morris Transit is funded through a combination of state, federal and local money. Each year, the city applies for a grant through the Greater Minnesota Transit Fund, a combination of state money, collected sales tax and federal transit grants.

The grant covers 80 percent of the cost of operating Morris Transit, while the city is responsible for the remaining 20 percent. In most years, the city’s share for the transit system is covered by fares, said Raasch.

In 2012, the city requested about $409,000 and was awarded $390,000, which is the maximum the city could receive. As the year progresses, the city is reimbursed for 80 percent of expenses up to the grant amount.

For 2013, the city requested about $431,000 and was awarded a total of $400,000, which is still $10,000 more than the award in 2012. Raasch said that she didn't expect any cuts to that amount despite state and federal budget concerns.

If the grant award is less than expected, Heinrich spends less time in the office doing paperwork and more time out driving to help make up the difference, explained Raasch.

“There's only certain places you can make adjustment – you're either going to increase your fares, you're going to decrease the number of hours,” Raasch said.

However, fare increases are “not often talked about,” said Raasch, “because you don't want to have to do that.”

Morris Transit also buys a new bus every other year, which is also split 80/20 with grant money. In 2013, the city will be replacing a bus bought in 2001 that has nearly 189,000 miles. The $15,000 of the city's share will come from the capital fund, Raasch said.

Cooperation, coordination and consolidation 

Over the last several years, transit organizers have started to talk about cooperation, coordination and consolidation among transit systems, Raasch said.

To that end, representatives from Morris visited Rainbow Rider, a public transit system based in Lowry that serves Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Todd and Traverse counties to become more familiar with the service and see if there were areas to combine.  

Rainbow Rider has recently added an electronic dispatch system, but Raasch and Heinrich said they didn't believe it made sense for Morris right now.

Adding new technology also comes with a cost. In the past, the small size of  the Morris Transit system has allowed the city to sit back and wait for the cost of technology to decrease before investing in it, said Heinrich.

“We have such a great service that we provide, we don't want to change it – not that it would make it worse or better, you don't know, but right now it's working great and they're able to offer a lot of rides,” said Raasch.