Grand Forks cancels night busing, but federal assistance is en route

Grand Forks city bus
Grand Forks-East Grand Forks public transit provider Cities Area Transit bus interior. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service

Cities Area Transit’s last night buses for the foreseeable future ran on Monday -- empty.

Staff at Grand Forks’ bus service announced on Wednesday, April 8, that dial-a-ride and fixed-route busing would cease after 6 p.m., a move that effectively ends the “13” route that loops counterclockwise through Grand Forks from about 6 to 10 p.m. and the latter shift of the “3/6” route that loops through Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. The city’s bus routes before 6 p.m. will be unaffected. The announcement came on Wednesday, but Tuesday was the first night without night bus service.

The change was made because ridership has plummeted during the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, according to city transit staff. Last week, a total of nine people rode the 13 bus and six rode the evening 3/6 one. That’s considerably less than the 86 and 85 people who rode those routes, respectively, during the week of March 16-21.

“We’ve got to use our common sense,” said Dale Bergman, who runs Cities Area Transit. “Everything’s shut down at night, we’re telling people to stay home, why are we out there running, driving around until 10 o’clock at night with nothing there?”

The city has nine routes it runs in a given day, which are split into an eight-hour morning and four-hour afternoon shift. At 6 p.m., typically, the 3/6 bus would continue and another would turn into the 13 bus, so to speak.


Four drivers are on the shelf for health reasons -- two because they have relatively weak immune systems, which makes the virus particularly dangerous for them, and two more who are staying home sick. That, plus a few departures not directly related to the virus, means the city has about 12 of a hoped-for 18 fixed-route drivers available to it on a given day, and it’s been siphoning people from its “dial-a-ride” service to compensate.

It’s able to do that because the virus has also meant that fewer people are asking for dial-a-ride service. Five part-time, seasonal dial-a-ride drivers volunteered to have their hours cut to zero after Bergman asked for people to do so. Of the 12 nonseasonal dial-a-ride drivers, seven are filling in on fixed routes, and the other five are working the remaining calls .

But Bergman said eliminating nighttime bus service won’t mean furloughs, layoffs or further reductions in hours.

That’s because Grand Forks is in line for up to $3.3 million worth of federal assistance via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act that was approved by Congress late last month.

That money would reimburse the city’s transit system for day-to-day expenses the virus incurs: overtime, paid leave, personal protective equipment for drivers, and so on.

It’s also larger than Cities Area Transit’s annual operations budget by about $462,000. City staff are still determining the details of the federal aid package and are not sure when the money would be available. Public finance is rigid enough that Grand Forks leaders can’t point the tax money they already collect for busing somewhere else.

The act apportioned about $15 million for bus service in Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo.


Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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