U.S. Senators on Tuesday heard from Brandon Nurmi of the Virginia-based Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency as they discussed the need for rural transportation improvements.
Nurmi is the Assistant Director for Arrowhead Transit, which is part of AEOA, and he told senators on the Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee that additional transportation for the region’s aging, disabled and low-income communities remains a major barrier to reach medical appointments, employment, shopping and social events.
One of the largest barriers we face in rural transportation is the ability to provide access to rural and deep rural areas that would not meet classic passenger metrics used to evaluate the value of a route,” Nurmi said in his testimony. “We have tried to address this by offering routes based on a minimum passenger basis.”
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, chairs the subcommittee and said the working group of senators was convened to highlight the strengths and learn from rural partners about the federal government’s role in transportation.
The working group was formed two years ago with Smith, Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Their work, she hoped, would cycle through committees for the transit portion of the upcoming surface transportation bill.
“Intercity bus service connects people to nearby towns and regional centers, connecting people to jobs and fueling regional economies,” Smith said in her opening remarks. “ And new investments in a transition to a clean economy in transportation – including electric vehicles and low carbon renewables like ethanol and biodiesel shouldn’t leave out rural places.”
Nurmi said AEOA serves 95,165 individuals in 35,499 households with over 2.1 million pounds of food in collaboration with more than 80 community partners across our service area. The Arrowhead Transit division, he added, helps the agency accomplish its food distribution goals that delivered 37,805 boxes, school lunch meals, food shelf deliveries, along with meal kits, during the pandemic.
Accessible transportation across the Range is the main goal for Nurmi and his colleagues, but it’s a tall task that often takes them into deep rural areas that don’t meet the metrics traditionally used to evaluate a route.
“We have tried to address this by offering routes based on a minimum passenger basis,” he said. “If we have ‘X’ number of passengers that request to use the route on the books, then we will send it.”
That provides basic accessibility, but not a reliable form of transportation.
Arrowhead Transit has been working with the Minnesota’s Office of Transit and Active Transportation to identify and address the region’s transportation needs and the agency works with two Regional Transportation Coordinating Councils to collaborate on new ways to bridge transportation gaps.
They were recently awarded the FTA’s Innovative Mobility Integration program to work on developing a rural transportation program utilizing local transportation options and volunteer drivers to provide transportation to people outside the service area, using technology for trip planning and integrated payment
It is our hope that, if successful, we would be able to utilize this program in additional rural areas across the state,” Nurmi added.
Smith said rural Americans are increasingly reliant on viable, efficient and well-functioning transit within the community, similar to the suburbs of larger metro areas.
She added that rural transit leaders like Nurmi and AEOA have fresh ideas to serve their communities and are working toward improving on-demands and specialized routes to better connect people with where they need to go.
Folks living in rural places are more likely to be older, and maybe don’t drive anymore, but they still need to get to the doctor,” the senator said. “Working families in rural places may struggle to afford a car and gas, but they still need to get to work and school. Without transit, the economy, health care, and education don’t work.”