May 17--They made it cheaper for college students, made it more convenient for most riders and may have even made it cool to use. Whatever the reason, Mankato's bus system has taken off.
The numbers tell the story. In 2008, the Greater Mankato Transit System provided just under 338,000 rides. In 2013, the system provided 672,573 rides -- just short of doubling in five years.
A ride on a morning bus headed toward Minnesota State University tells the story in a more palpable way, probably in a more aromatic way, as well. A passenger is in each of the 38 seats, and the 20 standing-room spots are fully occupied or nearly so.
"If you get on like the 8:45 a.m., it's been super, super-packed, like sardines sometimes," said Kierstin Guenther, a graduate student at MSU.
At times, would-be riders are told there's no more room, that they'll have to wait for the next bus -- something virtually unheard of on Mankato city buses in previous decades.
Transit Supt. Mark Anderson said the most dramatic change in ridership came in the last three months of 2012, when routes were changed to get riders to high-demand destinations more quickly and when MSU set up a system where students automatically were charged a per-semester fee in return for unlimited free rides. Ridership jumped 70 percent for the ensuing 12 months compared to the same period a year earlier.
"We've gone from people complaining 'We don't see any people on those buses. Why are these big buses rumbling through town?' to people complaining 'Why are these buses going by me with the "Full" sign on?'" Anderson said. "I don't know if it's a better problem to have, but it's a different problem to have."
Anderson credits the Mankato City Council for agreeing to provide a $50,000 local match to conduct a $250,000 study of the entire local transit system. Funded mostly with state dollars, the study was done in 2011 and its recommendations were first implemented with the start of MSU's fall semester in 2012.
Representatives of the city, MSU, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Region Nine Development Commission worked with a private transit consulting firm to evaluate the existing system and propose changes. The report looked at a number of alternatives, but Anderson said it was clear from city leaders that the only recommendations that would be adopted were ones that didn't involve more buses running more hours at more cost to taxpayers.
The system was running 22,000 hours a year (the number of buses multiplied by the number of hours they were on the road), and the council wanted the newly designed system to not exceed that.
"That was what my directive was," Anderson said.
The result was a plan that scaled back the geographic reach of bus service to provide more direct service to destination points such as River Hills Mall and Wal-Mart from downtown and MSU. Previously, riders often had to transfer from one route to another to reach those destinations. And long looped routes, which were the city's transit tradition and allowed more neighborhoods to be covered, were replaced with direct routes that involved buses simply turning around at the end of the line and reversing course.
"Prior to 2012, we were a system that was really trying to provide access to as many people as possible," he said.
While that might seem like a laudable goal, it took a long time for riders to get where they were going, particularly if they had to transfer from one bus to another. Less-productive segments have now been eliminated, meaning some people walk several blocks to get to a bus stop and dial-a-ride service is no longer provided in west Mankato.
But once people are on the bus, they reach their destination much faster.
Anderson concedes he opposed the idea initially, partly because the big loops were the way it had always been done and partly because he was concerned about the transit-dependent residents who lived and worked in places such as the Tourtellotte neighborhood and west Mankato that no longer would have convenient access to the bus. He's the guy who would get the calls from people who preferred the old system.
"And that's not a fun conversation to have," he said. "Because when you change a system like we had, you're really affecting people who don't have a lot of choices for transportation."
But the result of the changes left Anderson with no doubts that the consultants were right. A transit system that once was perceived as mainly serving folks with disabilities, new immigrants without driver's licenses and people in poverty is now looking a little more mainstream.
"Because people see other people using the buses, they think, 'If it's good enough for them, I can ride the bus,'" he said. "And it's the reverse as well."
There's one other piece of evidence that the bus-riding population is more representative of the broader community than it once was -- all of the advertising opportunities on the outside of city buses have been sold.
"All of our buses are wrapped in advertising," Anderson said, adding that ad spots on three replacement buses coming later this year have also been sold. Advertisers also are buying slots at bus stops and on transit benches.
The next phase
While the initial change was a revenue-neutral one, the study's recommendations included a Phase 2 that would expand service to and around the university area -- although only if MSU students were willing to pay for it.
Called the "Green Transportation Fee," the proposed new revenue source was a per-credit charge for all MSU students, capped at $9 per student per semester. The fee has since risen to $10.20 for full-load students.
"In exchange for that, you can ride any city bus with your Mav Card," Anderson said.
MSU's student government and administration supported the green fee, as did students themselves in a campus vote. And students and staff definitely jumped on board when the new system and the improved service began with the start of classes in 2012.
The academic year generated 428,000 rides on MSU-focused routes, compared to 269,000 the previous year, according to MSU statistics. The student fees generate the bulk of the roughly $350,000 a year that the university is now contributing to the transit system.
Mankato Mayor Eric Anderson, who said he often watched empty buses roll by his financial services office at Warrren and Second streets in the past, credits the college-financed improvements with boosting the vitality of the transit system.
"The best thing that's happened in a long time is the green fee at MSU," the mayor said. "... With the advent of the green fee, the bus system is really providing a service to the community."
Financially conservative, Mayor Anderson said he supports the transit system despite it still being heavily subsidized by tax dollars. The ability to take a bus saves college students hundreds of dollars in car-related expenses, the system provides transportation for people with few other options, and the buses reduce traffic congestion on campus and elsewhere in the city.
What worries him is that the aging population, the growth in Mankato as a health care center, the city's expansion to the east and the increasing perception of Mankato as a metropolitan area are going to drive up people's expectations of the level of service that should be provided by the bus system.
"I can tell you that the demands are going to grow, and the challenge will be how to use those limited resources to provide the best services at a price that's reasonable," he said.
More changes coming
The growth in the ridership and efficiency of Mankato's bus system has been noticed by state transportation officials, who recently granted the city additional dollars for route expansions that will begin later this year.
The expansion grants are awarded based on need but also on a transit system's performance compared to similar cities.
"We were able to rank pretty high and squeak some money out," Mark Anderson said. "I've been here a long time and we've never had expansion dollars."
It was the opposite in the 1980s and 1990s, when declining revenue was prompting reductions in service, which made the bus a less attractive option to riders, which means less revenue in the fare box.
"A few years ago we looked like we were in a death spiral," the transit director said.
Now, he's thinking about more expansion -- saying it's no longer unreasonable to contemplate eventually bringing back service to neighborhoods such as the Tourtellotte area and west Mankato. And he believes the city will have to find a way to add a route to the Wal-Mart distribution center by the time it opens next year on the far east side of town.
The new routes approved for this year won't reach that far, but starting July 28, a route tentatively named Route 13 will provide bus service to the expanding Wickersham Health Campus on the city's far northeast end, along with stops downtown, at Bethany Lutheran College, the hospital/clinic, Orness Plaza, the VA Clinic and the Menard's retail area. A second new route will come in the fall to more efficiently connect MSU to apartment complexes and other student housing up to a mile east and southeast of campus.
Operating costs typically run about $90 per hour of service, but federal and state aid covers 80 percent of operating deficits on eligible routes. State and federal funds cover 80 percent of new bus costs with a 20 percent local match, and those buses have a sticker price of about $430,000 for the largest buses and $142,000 for smaller ones.
The campus route will use one of the big buses, the ones that can hold up to 58 passengers when all the standing-room spots are occupied, Anderson said. And unlike a few years ago, he's confident that virtually every space will be filled on a regular basis.
"They will be standing all the way to the front," he said.
Copyright 2014 - The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.