Grand Forks and East Grand Forks administrators are working on a new long-term public transit plan that could be complicated by a deluge of federal infrastructure funding.

Cities Area Transit staff on both sides of the Red River are working on a 10-year plan outlining the financials, routes, equipment and other facets of the cities’ shared public transportation system. It’s a document each city needs to have on file to receive federal transit funding.

For now, that means a series of preliminary surveys – of drivers, of riders, staff and the public at large – to inform the new plan, but administrators are already considering new transit strategies they could adopt in the Grand Cities.

That could mean on-demand “micro transit” options in the style of “CAT”s existing dial-a-ride service.

“There is a need for transit in certain areas, but it’s not where you want to run a bus constantly for four hours driving around (and) you get maybe one or two people,” Dale Bergman, who directs Grand Forks’ transportation division, told the Herald.

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It could also mean moving Grand Forks’ transit hub south or building a second one in a more southerly part of town, such as the Grand Cities Mall, according to Nancy Ellis, East Grand Forks’ community development director who also administers that city’s public transit system.

“The center part of town isn’t necessarily downtown,” Ellis said. “If you go from the south end of town and you have to ride (the bus) all the way up to that hub to transfer to a different bus, it takes a lot of time. So maybe trying to find something more centrally located would make transfers and connections a little bit more efficient and quicker.”

Complicating those sorts of considerations, though, is funding – billions' worth of new federal spending that could change the cities’ transit finances. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – often referred to in Washington, D.C., circles as the “bipartisan infrastructure bill” – puts forth $39 billion for public transit. President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on Monday, Nov. 15.

“There’s a lot more money thrown at transit this time than what there ever has been,” Bergman said. “It’s a major change. We’ve never had that before.”

But programs like Cities Area Transit can only get their hands on federal transit subsidies, even before the bill, if they “match” a certain amount of that money with cash from their own budgets. That could prompt cities like Grand Forks to come up with more money of their own to take advantage of the new federal spending.

“We have to have discussion if we’re going to be able to afford to have the local match,” Bergman said. “Are we going to be able to afford it or not? Are we going to leave the money on the table or what?”

Grand Forks, though, isn’t required to use or even seek that new money, but it might behoove city administrators to do so if their work on the new 10-year plan finds a demand for more bus routes, more buses running those routes and so on, Bergman explained.

“That would drive up your operating costs,” he said.

In East Grand Forks, Ellis said it’s possible the influx of new federal spending could prompt the city’s government to spend more to match, but she said it's still not clear how the money – or how much – will end up being routed via the state government to the city.

“Minnesota really sets the tone for how I can kind of spend my money,” Ellis said. “Even though Dale and I share a service, it really is so very different on each side.”

10-year plan

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks have put together similar long-range transit plans before, but those have covered the upcoming five years, not 10. A further $120,000 from the transit administration, though, is set to pay for the longer-term plan.

The cities’ current transit development plan – often abbreviated as a “TDP” – was finalized in 2017. It called for more grid-like bus routes through the city and additional buses running routes during “peak” ridership times. Bus administrators amended the plan in 2019 to remove the peak route system because too few people used it, according to Ellis and Bergman.

“It confused everybody,” Bergman said. Ellis chalked it up to relatively low gas prices at the time, which she said meant that fewer people were nudged, financially, toward the bus system.

The current plan under which Grand Cities residents can ride the bus also includes online and touchless payments and a renovation to the building where city buses are stored and maintained.

Once the surveys are complete and “stakeholders” have been listened to, local transit administrators are set to draft some recommendations for the plan later this year and publish them in early 2022. They’ll revise those ideas in the spring and put together a final plan in early summer of 2022. The final transit plan would need to be approved by the Grand Forks City Council and the East Grand Forks City Council.

Dale Bergman, director of the city's transportation division, stops at Viking Elementary School in Grand Forks Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Bergman is filling in during the bus driver shortage.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
Dale Bergman, director of the city's transportation division, stops at Viking Elementary School in Grand Forks Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Bergman is filling in during the bus driver shortage. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald