June 08, 2021

Chair Tina Smith Leads Hearing on Rural Transit, Brings Transit Leaders Together to Discuss Connecting Rural Communities

Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Chair of a key Senate transportation subcommittee, led a hearing to gather input from rural transit leaders from across the country—including Brandon Nurmi from Arrowhead Transit in Virginia, Minnesota. The local transit officials shared the challenges they face each day in managing transit services in rural areas, as well as innovative solutions to connect rural communities.

Chair Smith, who was joined at the bipartisan hearing by the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), said the hearing today will inform senators as they work to craft the transit section of the upcoming surface transportation bill, which has historically been a bipartisan area of agreement.

“Rural communities are critical to the success of our country, and we should do all we can to ensure that people living in rural areas are able to get to the places they need to go,” said Sen. Smith. “Two years ago, Ranking Member Rounds and I started the bipartisan Rural Working Group so we could amplify the work of local leaders. This hearing gave rural transit leaders from across the country the opportunity to talk about the unique challenges they face, as well as innovative solutions to connect rural communities. Their voices are so important to informing our Committee as we work to craft the transit title for the upcoming surface transportation bill.”

You can access video of Sen. Smith’s opening statement here and video from the hearing here.  

Subcommittee Hears From Rural Transit Leaders

Mr. Brandon Nurmi from Arrowhead Transit in Virginia, Minnesota said the overall theme in all of Arrowhead Transit’s efforts is working toward providing access to transportation in as many areas as it can—access to services, access to employment, access to social events, etc. Mr. Nurmi said one of the largest barriers Arrowhead Transit faces is the ability to provide access to rural and deep rural areas that would not meet classic passenger metrics used to evaluate the value of a route.

Ms. Kendra McGeady—Director of Transit at Pelivan Transit in Big Cabin, Oklahoma—said that as a rural transit provider, Pelivan Transit faces obstacles due to a lack of adequate funding, diminished staff, aging fleets, as well as infrastructure issues such as under-maintained roadways and insufficient broadband. While Ms. McGeady outlined a number of steps the federal government should take to support rural transit, Pelivan Transit has implemented successful and innovative partnerships with its fellow transit agencies to provide more accessible and equitable transportation to the residents of Oklahoma including veteran-specific programs and a regional on-demand after-hours Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) service funded through competitive grant programs.

Ms. Barbara Cline—Executive Director at Prairie Hills Transit in Spearfish, South Dakota—shared details about Prairie Hill’s operation, and also highlighted the need for local share flexibility for rural transit systems, which is something Sens. Smith and Rounds support with their Investments in Rural Transit Act of 2021.

Sen. Smith’s Opening Statement
As Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon. I call the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development to order. 

I want to thank Senator Rounds for working with me on today’s bipartisan hearing focusing on rural transit, and for our strong partnership on issues that shape the lives of people living in rural America—transportation among them.

Two years ago, Senator Rounds and I teamed up with Senator Fischer from Nebraska and Senator Baldwin from Wisconsin for create the Rural Working Group. The purpose of this Working Group is to highlight the great strengths of rural communities, and the lessons we can learn from rural leaders about how the Federal Government can be a good partner, and a better partner.

Small towns and rural places are creative, entrepreneurial, diverse, wonderful places to live and raise a family. Rural places produce our food and energy and they are hubs of manufacturing, small businesses, education, health care, arts and culture.

We all need rural communities to be successful. That means, just like in the suburbs and in cities, transportation needs to work.

If you live in Northeast Minnesota, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, or any other of the vast rural areas of America, you are used to traveling long distances to do what you need to do—get to work or the doctor, buy groceries or fill a prescription.

And for transportation to work, there needs to be viable, efficient, well functioning transit systems.

Wait! You may say—if you live in the city. Transit is for cities, it won’t work in rural places.  People are too spread out, everyone drives, no one needs transit when you live in the country.

Today we are going to hear about how inaccurate this perception is, how vital transit is to rural America, and how important it is that we provide transit options that work in rural communities.

In fact, many people living in rural America are highly reliant on transit. Folks living in rural places are more likely to be older, and maybe don’t drive anymore, but they still need to get to the doctor. Working families in rural places may struggle to afford a car and gas, but they still need to get to work and school. Without transit, the economy, health care, and education don’t work. Inter-city bus service connects people to nearby towns and regional centers, connecting people to jobs and fueling regional economies. And new investments in a transition to a clean economy in transportation—including electric vehicles and low carbon renewables like ethanol and biodiesel--shouldn’t leave out rural places.

The fact is, rural transit providers are full of great ideas for how to meet the needs of their communities when it comes to mobility. Rural and small transit systems are leading the way, innovating with on-demand services and specialized routes that connect people to specific destinations. Today we will learn from them.

As we listen to the panel of rural transit leaders today, let’s keep in mind the veteran who needs to get to the VA clinic, the person trying to get back on their feet by doing job training, or a senior looking forward to their weekly fresh produce delivery. Each of them need affordable, reliable transit. 

It is my hope that today’s testimony will help inform the committee as we work to write the transit title for the upcoming surface transportation bill. The transit title has historically been a bipartisan area of agreement, and I know Chair Brown and Ranking Member Toomey are working hard on trying to reach a bipartisan agreement once again this year. 

It’s been a pleasure to work with Sen. Rounds in planning this hearing, and I will now turn to him for his opening statement.