AMCAT targets higher ridership

Published 2:05 pm Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pat Berg has never been much of a driver. In fact, she claims she’s never driven at all.

The 66-year-old Courtyard Apartments resident instead gets around Austin by bus, riding to work at the YMCA in the mornings and occasionally to Jerry’s Other Place for a meal.

Berg is one of a number of Austin residents that use the Austin Mower County Area Transit service each year. AMCAT’s ridership has been fairly steady over the years, but so far in 2010, the number is up roughly 4.5 percent.

And maybe Berg is part of the reason why.

Besides taking the bus most days, she said she often finds herself telling others about why they should take the bus and how to do so.

2005- 63,953 riders

2006- 61,853

2007- 69,668

2008- 71,049

2009- 70,226

2010- 26,903 (through April)*

*That number is up 4.5 percent versus the same time period in 2009

Source: City of Austin

“It is real helpful,” Berg said of the service, noting that learning a route can be daunting at first but quickly becomes “like clockwork.”

The increased ridership is very important to AMCAT’s board, as well as the city and county. The service is largely subsidized, with the state and federal governments paying upwards of 85 percent of the operating costs in a given year.

And the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which oversees both funding streams, likes to see its money being well spent — city financial director Tom Dankert said MnDOT pushes transit agencies like AMCAT to serve at least six passengers per hour on the road.

In May, AMCAT was closer to four per hour, but Dankert said most services like AMCAT are either at or below that rate. However, if AMCAT’s service rate dipped significantly, Dankert said MnDOT could potentially pull the plug on some or all funding.

“We’re looking at anything we can do to get people to ride the bus,” Dankert added.

That, however, is easier said than done. AMCAT transit manager Kelly Joseph said the buses have received the stigma of being “old-folks buses,” but said the service can be used by people of all ages.

“That’s been something we’ve struggled with,” Joseph said of the stigma. “We constantly try to let it be known that it’s for everyone.”

In 2008, AMCAT unveiled two new buses that had bike racks on the front, which, among other things, was meant to give young people another reason to take the bus. Joseph said she’s been disappointed with the response, but driver Derry Olsen said the racks do get used, often when a biker is being picked up out of the rain.

Still, Olsen acknowledges that the majority of his riders are older, which is largely par for the course in a community with as many seniors as Austin. But that doesn’t mean younger folks don’t ride, he said.

“We get a little bit of everyone,” Olsen noted.

And that often means busy routes. Olsen said he’s noticed a “steady” increase in ridership since he started working part-time for AMCAT in 2002. On Friday afternoon alone, Olsen had 39 passengers between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“(Ridership) has been going up lately,” he said.

If that trend continues throughout 2010, Dankert and others would be very happy.

“Ridership determines funding,” he said. “If we can continue to keep ridership up, federal dollars and state dollars can be there.”