The first time I called to speak with Ron Baumgart, executive director of River Cities Public Transit (RCPT), the woman on the phone tells me he will have to call me back because he’s out working in the garage.
It’s not too often I hear that on the other end of the line.
When I asked him about that and about wearing multiple hats at a small agency, he laughs. “Let’s put it this way, my picture probably won’t be in a suit and a tie.
“With my 30-some years of experience in machinery and fixing things, it’s probably one of the reasons I got hired here,” he says. Baumgart farmed and ranched for 30 years then decided it was time for a change.
He had been a Hughes county commissioner in central South Dakota for 12 years and enjoyed his involvement with the community. In 2001, when the executive director position of a very small transit agency opened up he thought it would be a good way to be involved.
Speaking again about where he’s at now, “You usually catch me in a pair of blue jeans and a transit shirt around here.” With an increase in grant writing and other office work as ridership increases, there’s less and less time that he spends in the shop, but he still enjoys doing it once in awhile.
Spending time in the different departments keeps him connected to what’s going on at the agency, he says. “I like sitting with the dispatchers once in awhile, working with them and visiting with the drivers. That’s how you get a feel for the system.” He adds, “Just getting out and riding the bus and visiting with some of the riders to see it from their perspective on how things are going.”
When he came to RCPT, he explains it was far from where it is today. “I took over a very struggling agency. Very far in debt, didn’t give many rides and vehicles were not maintained.”
In more recent times, it has a lot to show for its efforts. The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) awarded RCPT the 2006 Rural Transit System of the Year. In 2006 it also received the FTA Administrators Award for Outstanding Public Service in Rural Transportation.
An open mind and a progressive board of directors are what he attributes to the successful turnaround. “They allow me and my employees, fairly free reign to do things, to try new ideas, to provide better transportation throughout our central area of South Dakota.” He quickly adds, “Certainly the struggles of getting there are tough.
“When I first got here we had some employees that struggled with the fact that we were going to go 50 miles out in the country and pick somebody up to bring them in for a doctor’s appointment.” He says laughing, “A couple years later I heard a couple of them in the hallway and one of them said, ‘you know what the boss is going to say, he’s going to just say do it.’
“That’s what we do. We just do it.”
What it is They Do
Not only do they do it, they do it any time. “We basically offer all types of public transportation services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We never close,” Baumgart states.
“It’s a lot of work,” he stresses. “I have employees that always have to work holidays and weekends. But those are some of our busiest days, when individuals want to get to somebody’s house for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving dinner.”
RCPT nearly quadrupled its ridership between 2003 and 2005. The agency operates primarily demand-response service, but it also has job shuttles, Head Start and after-school service.
“We go door-to-door,” Baumgart explains. “We pick you up at your door and we take you where you want to go and then back home.” He adds, “As our ridership has grown, that has become quite a challenge, but we’re still doing it.
“We really try to put ourselves in the shoes of the people that ride our system and I think that’s what makes us stand apart.”