WILLMAR -- An aging population, increasing gas prices and a growing immigrant population that can't afford multiple vehicles to drive to work are all factors in the increasing need for transit services in rural Minnesota.
That's why the expected unallotment of state funds and the expiration of the federal transportation bill this fall is making those in the transit business a little nervous.
"It's a big issue," said Margaret Donahoe, legislative advocate for the Minnesota Public Transit Association.
Donahoe was in Willmar Friday to talk about the impact of state and federal funding to transit systems.
In rural Minnesota, it's estimated that 1.35 million hours of public transit service are currently needed to meet 80 percent of the needs but that 1.03 million hours are available, said Donahoe.
By 2012, it's projected rural Minnesota communities will need 1.5 million hours to meet 80 percent of their needs, but there will still only be 1.03 million hours of service available without additional funding.
"We are really under funded," said Donahoe.
There are currently 61 transit systems, like KAT, operating in rural Minnesota. Some are small, with just a few vans. There are five counties that have no transit system at all.
"Service is very limited in Greater Minnesota," said Donahoe. "It should be available to anybody."
As Minnesotans age, she said, there will be even more demand for transit services in rural communities. "People aren't going to be able to drive until the day they die," said Donahoe.
Considering the large state deficit, transit funding actually fared quite well this year in the Minnesota Legislature, she said. But there's concern that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unallotment of general fund money could mean a 1 to 5 percent reduction to transit systems.
KAT could handle a one percent reduction by tightening up routes, said Tiffany Collins, KAT transit director. But a 3-5 percent reduction in funds to their $1 million budget would likely mean a reduction in services.
In the 10 years that KAT has been in operation, the number of people using the system has been gradually growing and transit services throughout the county have increased. Collins said she does not want to see the system go backwards by reducing services.
"We need additional funding to keep the services we have now," said Donahoe, let alone increasing services.
As Congress begins working on a new six-year transportation bill, Donahoe said there's optimism that more federal funding will be dedicated to transit systems than in the past.
A "strong bill" could help put public transit systems on a positive course for the future, she said.
KAT buses run 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. Evening taxi service that's subsidized by KAT is available from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. on weekdays.