A few days after Jeanne McMillin started working as a dispatcher for Little Dixie Transit in the small southeastern Oklahoma town of Hugo nearly 20 years ago, she got a call from someone she described as “a little lady.”
Unbeknownst to McMillin, this lady had been a long-time rider. But McMillin was having a hard time getting all her information down. There were three different phones, two-way radios blaring constantly, and lots of activity in the office of people coming and going. It was all so much more chaotic than she expected when she took the job at the rural public transit agency. So McMillin asked the lady two or three times for her origin and destination, just to make sure she got it right.
“She kind of laughed,” McMillin recalled, “and said, ‘honey, are you new?’” McMillin chuckled at the recollection and the good-natured way the woman responded to her difficulties adjusting to the new job. “She could just tell.”
Little DIxie Transit is a public transportation agency, like New York City Transit or the LA Metro. But the similarities end there. It doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend every year or a staff of tens of thousands to serve those riders. In 2018, Little Dixie Transit had a $2 million budget and a staff of about two dozen. Rather than moving millions of people a day, they move hundreds. And when someone has somewhere to go, they call the landline and talk to someone like McMillin.
McMillin says you can learn an awful lot about a person simply by knowing where they’re going, something that Google, Apple, and countless tech companies have since discovered. A person’s travel habits are intimate, revealing details. Of course, McMillin wasn’t out to profit off that information. But it meant riders became much more than riders to her.
When that “little lady” would call, she’d tell McMillin she needed to go to Walmart or get her hair done. They’d chat about what they were making for dinner, when the lady’s children were coming to visit, and when something around the house broke that needed fixing.
“It became personal because you knew this person, her life, her activities, what she liked to do,” McMillin said. “You always thought she was going to be there, because she had always been there.” And Little Dixie Transit was always there for her, too.
The coronavirus crisis has had a powerful revealing effect on all aspects of American life. Most poignantly, it has shown us what is essential to our health and well-being. In big cities, public transportation systems that get essential workers where they need to go have received deserved recognition for their critical role in managing the crisis.
But the transit agencies across the country that serve rural populations have been less recognized. In large part, this is because many people don’t even know there’s such a thing as a rural transit agency. When most people think of public transit they think of trains and buses in dense urban areas. And when they think of rural areas, they picture people in cars driving everywhere.
But these services, which typically use smaller vans that seat a maximum of 14 people, are just as critical. They may serve fewer people, but are vital lifelines for the people who rely on them. Without these rural transit agencies, old folks would have to permanently leave their homes, the sick would routinely miss medical appointments, and some people would be stranded far from grocery stores and social events.
Motherboard spoke to four administrators of rural transit agencies and two statewide directors about the role they play in their communities for this article, and all of them stressed the underappreciated aspect of their services.
“We’re not a big urban system,” said Melissa Fesler of First Capital Trolley in Guthrie, Oklahoma. “We may not impact as many lives, but we do impact the lives of those we serve.”
In 2018, America’s 1,280 rural transit agencies made more than 125 million combined trips, according to data compiled by the American Public Transportation Association. The data doesn’t break down the purposes of those trips, but the rural transit employees Motherboard spoke to said they serve a variety of purposes. Some of their riders don’t own cars either for financial or health reasons. Others are on dialysis or receiving chemotherapy that require regular trips to health centers far from their homes and don’t have anyone else to provide that transportation. A significant portion of rural transit ridership tends to be elderly, allowing those customers to live in their homes longer than they otherwise could. Many rural agencies partner with drug courts to take people with suspended licenses to their appearances. Others bring children to school or activities while their parents are at work. Basically, if you cannot drive yourself for whatever reason, rural transit fills the gaps.
Rural transit’s proponents believe it is not merely a vital lifeline in times of crisis, but a key component to any recovery. “I always say there’s two reasons people ride the bus,” said executive director of Oklahoma Transit Association Mark Nestlen, “to make money and to spend money.” Even if that’s not strictly true, it’s a decent rule-of-thumb. For that reason, Nestlen calls transit “an economic development program that happens to have quality of life benefits.”
It’s important to not put too much stock in economic impact analyses, as they’re often little more than glorified guesswork. That being said, a host of studies have consistently found public transit in both rural and urban areas pays for itself by creating jobs, saving people money, improving health care access and outcomes, and saving lives. While the exact dollar benefits range greatly, studies consistently find rural transit is worth the money.
But these rural transit experts also said recent events have underscored how federal rules and funding formulas make it difficult to provide better or expanded service to those who need it. As a result, some are worried about what the future will bring.
“I’ve never experienced anything like what we have gone through in the last couple of months in almost 20 years of doing this work,” McMillin said, “and I’m very concerned about where we’re going to be at when we come out the other side.”
Like their urban counterparts, many rural transit agencies didn’t shut down when their respective states issued stay-at-home orders. The managers I spoke to all recounted similar thought processes, ones reminiscent of the mutual aid networks that have sprung up around the country. They asked themselves how they can still serve their communities even if it means adhering to social distancing and putting their community first, personal finances second.
Because many of their riders use the service to get to grocery stores, several rural agencies Motherboard spoke to quickly pivoted to grocery and meal delivery. Kari Ruse, transit manager at the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said many of the rural agencies in her state are now de facto grocery delivery services, free of charge.
So too is Goose Creek Transit in Sheridan, Wyoming, which primarily serves the town’s elderly population and whose goal, according to manager Steve Ainslie, is to enable seniors to live in their homes for as long as possible. Normally, that means bringing seniors to and from the senior center, but with social distancing rules in place, Goose Creek Transit has become their go-to Walmart delivery service. Ainslie decided to waive the $2.50 fare because “it just didn’t seem like the right idea to ask” for that money.
Not only did many rural transit agencies stay open, but they are also facing expenses and various inefficiencies that are pushing their budgets. Most obviously, they had to buy personal protective equipment for their drivers—many of whom are themselves senior citizens supplementing retirement income—and gallons upon gallons of hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies, expenses they either didn’t have before the outbreak or were much lower prior to the crisis. Fesler of First Capital Transit told Motherboard she’s been spending $80 per gallon of hand sanitizer, not to mention sanitizing all 60 vehicles between each passenger.
Some rural transit agencies have it better than big city agencies that typically move millions of people, at least financially speaking. Although agencies big and small have seen ridership plummet, the CARES Act, which provided $25 billion for public transportation, will cover agency shortfalls in the 10 largest transit regions for an average of 5.4 to 8.3 months, according to an analysis by the non-profit think tank TransitCenter. For the rest of the country’s transit systems, CARES Act funding will last an average of 12.6 to 20.8 months.
This is because the CARES Act uses the same federal funding formulas as the feds do in normal times to divvy up that $25 billion, which, as Ben Fried of TransitCenter told Motherboard, “shortchange transit agencies in large cities, distributing less money relative to their share of national ridership.”
However, TransitCenter notes these are just averages, and some rural agencies are in just as dire funding straits as big city agencies due to the vagaries of these broad formulas.
In order to receive money from the feds, rural transit agencies have to scrounge up some cash on their own. For operating expenses, agencies have to match the federal contribution dollar for dollar, while administrative and capital expenses are one local dollar for every four federal ones (the CARES Act money doesn’t require a local match).
Some rural agencies get that local match from city or state tax revenues. Others raise the money on their own by providing contract services for non-emergency medical transportation, drug courts, and other local government agencies for their transportation needs.
This is a cumbersome, inexact process that works better for some rural agencies than others during normal times. Because the CARES Act uses the same basic formulas, the coronavirus crisis has therefore only exacerbated those differences, meaning those who normally struggle to put together local match funding are in even worse shape during the crisis.
First, those federal funds for rural transit agencies—which amounted to $740 million for rural transit agencies this fiscal year before the CARES Act stimulus—are appropriated based on performance metrics. The two most important metrics are how many trips the agencies provide and how many miles the vehicles travel while picking up and dropping off riders. Both of those statistics have plummeted nationwide in recent weeks.
Plus, agencies that used to transport multiple passengers at a time have changed their policies to enable social distancing. Now, they have either severely limited vehicle capacity or stopped taking multiple passengers entirely. This adds vehicle miles travelled—and the related fuel and maintenance expenses—while providing service for fewer people, making their operations appear less efficient, which hurts their federal outlay.
On top of that, those same performance measures are the ones transit administrators show to local politicians to demonstrate they’re providing a valuable service to the community. This helps justify the local match funding so they can in turn receive the federal funds. But, with tax revenues plummeting, will local or state governments continue providing that funding, especially if rural transit agency’s metrics look so bad on paper?
Even the agencies that raise their own matching funds are worried. Little Dixie Transit, for example, gets most of its matching funds through non-emergency medical transportation contracts that pay for Medicaid patients to get to their doctor’s appointments. In rural areas, those trips can take hours each way. Dialysis and chemotherapy patients are still going to their appointments because they’re medically necessary, but McMillin estimates about 75 percent of non-emergency medical trips have been cancelled. As of the end of April, she has no idea how she will make up for that lost revenue.
In keeping with the vagaries of federal funding formulas, some agencies are more worried about the future than others. Ruse, for example, thinks the $27 million Nebraska got through the CARES Act will help see Nebraska’s transit agencies through the difficult months ahead. Others are hoping this crisis spurs more fundamental changes in how rural transit is funded so they aren’t scrounging for dollars every year to get that federal match.
Depending on the specifics, this would likely be a great development, Nestlen believes.
“Congress never sat down at the table and said ‘let’s develop a rural transit program. What should it look like?’ They sat down at a table and said here’s the urban transit program…we’re going to have everything be the same and just put it in rural," he said. "When you do that, you’re going to put a square peg into a round hole.”
It is to their credit that the rural transit agencies do not operate like square pegs in round holes. To a person, the people interviewed for this article were proud to be serving their communities in these difficult times. Some said it reminded them why they got into this line of work to begin with. Fesler had a driver thank her for assigning her to deliver meals to seniors, because she was just grateful to be making a difference at a time where so many of us feel so isolated and powerless, the exact opposite of what a good transit system does for its passengers.
One of the people who has been reminded what she got into this line of work lately is McMillin. Seven or eight years into her tenure at Little Dixie Transit, the “little lady” who welcomed her to the new job passed away. McMillin and a half-dozen other Little Dixie Transit employees went to her funeral. After all, they spoke to her almost every day for years. They knew which days she would be calling and which days she wouldn't. It was those kinds of experiences that got McMillin hooked to the job, helping people one at a time. Never before, she said, has that been more important.
“I can’t tell you,” she added almost as an afterthought, “how many people we transport where we will be the only people they see any given day.”