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Dave Olson, Published December 19 2012

Still a hot ticket: Economic necessity keeps MATBUS ridership strong in F-M

FARGO - Bus ridership in Fargo-Moorhead has been on a roll for years and continues to climb, thanks to regulars like Nancy Big Bear.

“I go to grocery stores, doctor appointments. It’s the only transportation I’ve got,” said Big Bear, 67, whose home in Moorhead is half a block from a bus stop.

On a recent morning, Big Bear sat in a chair at downtown Fargo’s Ground Transportation Center as she waited for a bus that would take her to the hospital.

No, there wasn’t a problem; just a new baby granddaughter she wanted to visit.

Big Bear and other riders account for more than 2 million bus boardings annually in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The robust demand is tied to a number of factors, said Jim Gilmour, Fargo city planner.

Surveys show that about 10 percent of area households do not have regular access to an automobile.

And then there is the price of gasoline.

Ten years ago, gas was selling for about $1 a gallon; today the price is above $3.

In the 1940s, when fewer people owned automobiles, bus ridership in Fargo ran as high as 4 million to 5 million boardings a year, Gilmour said.

Last year, he said, ridership reached probably its highest point since the 1970s, with about 2.2 million boardings.

Boardings this year are on pace to match or better that number, said Gilmour, adding that consolidation of bus routes this year makes it difficult to compare numbers because combining routes eliminates transfers and fewer transfers mean smaller boarding numbers.

Even so, “We’re probably doing better than last year,” he said.

He said a lot of the growth in ridership is due to people who attend or work at North Dakota State University.

While the campus has grown, parking has not kept pace and riding the bus may be more convenient for some instead of trying to park on campus, Gilmour said.

“We’re hoping to get more people to ride the bus downtown, too,” he noting, noting that paying $40 a month for a bus pass may be more appealing to some than paying $65 a month to park downtown.

Gilmour said that while estimates may vary, the annual cost of owning and operating a vehicle is significant, as can be the savings when switching to public transportation.

“The national figure is $8,000 to $9,000 a year in savings in vehicle ownership, gas, insurance and maintenance,” he said.

New Flyers coming

To help handle demand, the city of Fargo recently decided to buy four New Flyer buses for about $2.5 million, or about $620,000 each. An estimated 80 percent of the cost will be covered by federal dollars.

Fargo has 27 buses in the MATBUS system plying its fixed routes, with an additional bus used for training.

Moorhead has 10 fixed-route buses.

When Fargo’s new buses come online late next year, it is expected three older buses will be retired, putting Fargo’s active fixed-route fleet at 29 buses.

Each new bus will hold 70 to 75 passengers – seated and standing – compared to the 15-year-old buses they will replace, which have a capacity of about 60 passengers each.

Fargo also plans to establish bus stops at roughly three-block intervals next year.

Once signs are in place, the city will slowly discontinue the current practice of letting riders flag buses down if they want a ride.

“We’re going to implement it slowly because it takes a while for people to get adjusted,” Gilmour said.

He said the change will get riders to their destinations quicker.

Gilmour said he sees mass transit growing in importance as the population ages.

“I always tell people we all need to plan ahead for the day our kids are going to take our car keys away.

“While you may not use public transit today, you may need it in the future,” he said.

Economic ladder

Many people rely on the bus to get to work or to go to school, particularly new Americans, Gilmour said.

“A lot of people wouldn’t be able to climb the economic ladder if it wasn’t for basic mass transit,” he said.

Diane Wray Williams, who was a staunch supporter of transit funding when she served on the Moorhead City Council, agreed.

“I would hear from people who depended on MAT for so many things,” Williams said, recalling a woman who was legally blind and relied on public transportation to get to her part-time job.

“She could get on the public bus. She could end up at her work site.

“She was just glowing because she could do that half-day of work,” Williams said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555