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Column: An Unflattering Comparison – The Sioux Falls Bus System

FILE: Sioux Falls Bus Stop
WikiMedia Commons

Sioux Falls’ city bus system, the Sioux Area Metro, does not run enough routes or with adequate frequency, because it is terribly underfunded. To see this, let me tell you a little bit about the city where I was born.

Mansfield is a small city of about 47,000 in north central Ohio. It is dying a slow, ugly death. According to the census, the city’s population peaked in 1970 at 55,000 people, and has been declining each time it is measured every decade ever since. It is a typical rust belt tragedy as its GM Plant is now shut down, and its steel mill which had been shuttered in the past, has reopened as a much smaller, less labor intensive operation.

Mansfield is the kind of place that people leave, even if they don’t leave the area. The villages surrounding Mansfield have experienced a population boom over the decades as just about anyone who could afford to move did so and wound up in suburban housing on what used to be farm land. The retail followed hand in hand, leaving Mansfield with a collapsed core that is most obviously visible in the sheer number of unoccupied housing, retail, and commercial structures.

Mansfield’s city bus system, the Richland County Transit, serves the cities of Mansfield and Ontario, the first of Mansfield’s surrounding villages to benefit from intense suburbanization, but no longer the largest of them. Essentially, the aforementioned GM plant and a modern shopping mall were built there because of how cheap and accessible the land was, and it eventually replaced Mansfield’s downtown as the retail center of the area.

Today, Richland County Transit runs 13 routes, they finish by 6:30pm, and Saturday service ended in 2004. About 80% of its funding comes from federal grants, with the rest coming from city and county money and about $8000 monthly from collected fares. Each month about 21,000 trips are taken on RCT.

Despite a slight uptick in ridership owing to high gas prices, like Mansfield, RCT is struggling to survive. The cash strapped city and county are having more difficulty coming up with money to support the system. RCT will never again be adequate to the Mansfield area’s needs, because the investment necessary to create a system that would move people around Mansfield, and from suburb to suburb, just isn’t in the cards.

With low unemployment and a consistently growing population that now tops 150,000, Sioux Falls is decidedly not like Mansfield. It is the kind of place that people move to. The last three censuses have recorded more than 20% increases in the population. When you consider the entire metro area, Sioux Falls is about double the population of the Mansfield area.

Sioux Falls also has a public transit system that is inadequate to its needs, but unlike Mansfield, it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite also running only 13 fixed routes, more than a million trips a year are taken on Sioux Area Metro, which breaks down to about 3,333 trips per day according to Eric Meyerson of SAM.

To put that in perspective, given approximately equal service provided, about 5 times as many trips are being taken on SAM. Clearly the potential for ridership exists; the service just needs more routes running at greater frequencies. The only thing preventing that from happening is a lack of funding. It is time to change that.

Instead of steamrolling citizen opposition and bending over backwards to find ways to put new Wal-Marts on quality farm land, city officials need to be pursuing a strategy that puts more people living, working and shopping as close to downtown Sioux Falls as possible. A quality public transportation system is an integral part of such an effort.

Sioux Falls and Mansfield are two very different cities at disparate stages in their respective life cycles. It is a disgrace that they have comparable bus systems. Sioux Falls deserves better.

Previous Column: Lone Star, No Oversight

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