Heartland Express to set regular routes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Sometime this spring, the Mower County Heartland Express public transit system will launch a new route-based system.

Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Sometime this spring, the Mower County Heartland Express public transit system will launch a new route-based system.

Email newsletter signup

It will be the closest the city of Austin has been to a metropolitan bus system in its history.

The new route-based system is expected to increase ridership, become more cost effective and become an even more integral part of peoples’ lives.

So, why isn’t transportation coordinator Kim Jensen smiling?

Answer: A looming funding crisis that threatens to undercut the 5-year-old program ready to reach a new level of service.

"As a transit provider in Mower County, I am extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership being shown at the state level for transit funding," Jensen said. "The governor’s budget provides minimal increase at a time when we’re facing rising fuel costs and increased labor costs.

"The House Majority Caucus just released its budget targets with transit funding decreasing from the governor’s recommendation. We were very concerned about what the governor had provided and this leaves us with even more of a bleak looking future.

"If the House Majority Caucus has their way, most systems in the state, along with ours, will face cuts and/or fare increases."

The House Majority Caucus released its budget targets a week ago with transit funding decreased from Gov. Jesse Ventura’s budget recommendations.

According to the Minnesota Public Transit Association, no funds were set aside for capital projects either. Roads and bridges did not fare well, but will see at least 50 percent of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax dedicated to the Highway Trust Fund, providing roughly a $100 million annual increase.

The association believes this could lead to a stalemate for any significant long-term funding proposal. Additionally, the House would direct all current surplus funds toward a tax rebate this year.

The Senate DFL Majority Caucus has proposed using half of the current surplus for one-time transportation funding, including $75 million for one-time transit capital costs.

The association is urging Jensen and the Heartland Express users as well as other transportation coordinators and systems in the state to mobilize and get the word out to legislators that cuts in transit service will hurt their district and constituents.

With so many unmet needs, such as education funding, property tax relief and major deficits in funding roads, bridge and highway improvements, it may be hard to draw attention to public transit systems’ own needs.

Jensen said it can be done.

According to the Heartland Express transportation coordinator, public transit increases the mobility of people and goods, which improves economic efficiency.

Also, businesses are encouraging their employees to use public transit systems and the system itself is a valuable Minnesota industry employing more than 3,700 people and generating more than $750 million per year in wages, goods and services.

Take public transit away and a new barrier is created for low-income people who need reliable transportation, Jensen argues.

"The Mower County Heartland Express, like other public transit systems, allows seniors to live independently at home instead of in costly nursing homes," she said. "The service allows people who can’t drive to get to jobs, medical appointments, shopping, etc."

"In other words, it keeps people participating in their economy rather than remaining isolated and stuck at home," she said.

Heartland Express needs more dollars to increase service within the city of Austin and all of Mower County, according to Jensen. It receives 65 percent of its funding from the state and the rest from subsidies from the city and Mower County, fares and other local support.

The latest funding dilemma has put the public transit system at a crossroads: literally and figuratively.

"Do we follow through with our plans to expand service and look at replacing our lost state dollars with that of local dollars and/or fare increases or do services need to be cut?" she said. "Until we have a dedicated funding source from the state, we will face this same issue every year."

Jensen is urging all those who depend on Heartland Express to write or call state Sen. Grace Schwab (R-Albert Lea), who currently serves on the Senate transportation committee and state Rep. Rob Leighton (D-Austin).

"There are also some leadership positions that need to be reached and those legislators are Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty and House transportation policy committee chair Tom Workman," she said.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Roger Moe, Randy Kelly, the Senate transportation committee chair, and Dean Johnson, chair of the Senate transportation and public safety budget committee, are others targeted for attention.

Also, Jensen said interested supporters may call her at 434-9559 for more information.