For many people, a trip to Walmart or the laundromat or even to work is as simple as getting in the car and going.
But for those without cars of their own, the lack of transportation solutions can be a barrier to economic opportunity.
Now a working group of city officials, nonprofit organization leaders and the Duluth Transit Authority are exploring ways to make incremental changes to improve the bus service many rely on to move around Superior.
“Quite often when it comes to transit, some of the main narrative is that no one uses the bus or there’s not enough money,” said Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, a member of the working group. “We know that there are a lot of people that would like to ride the bus.”
Superior has two fixed routes that serve downtown, Billings Park and South Superior areas, and the Duluth-Superior route that also provides service to downtown, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Mariner Mall and the eastern portion of the city along East Fifth and Second streets. On both routes, buses run every half hour during peak morning and afternoon hours, but midday service runs hourly on weekdays, and only hourly service is available on weekends.
“I think the main problem for our shelter and our clients is the amount of time the bus is offered, how late,” said Chelsea Branley, executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters and a member of the working group. She said shelter clients often have to wait an hour for service, which serves as a barrier to employment and getting to appointments on time. And for people with jobs that run later than 7 p.m., she said it's difficult for clients to get back to the shelter because they frequently don’t have money for other modes of transportation.
The route serving downtown, Billings Park and South Superior goes out of service nearly an hour before the final bus of the day from Duluth reaches downtown Superior, and the final bus of the day in the Itasca neighborhood circulates in and out of the area around 6:40 p.m., according to current bus schedules. The final buses of the day between Duluth and Superior end service for the day around 7:30 p.m.
“I became a part of this conversation because I see the difficulty and extra stress this is causing the people we are trying to serve,” Branley said.
Two of the biggest barriers to using mass transit in Superior are the frequency and hours of operation, which can limit economic opportunity, Van Sickle said. She said that opportunity is further reduced for people who use the bus in Itasca and South Superior.
The limited hours of service affect whether a bus shifts outside of traditional daytime work hours, according to a 2014 operational analysis of transit services in Superior conducted by Northwest Wisconsin Regional Planning. The report suggested incremental changes such as increasing route frequency, altering routes and schedules and even creating a new route to serve the eastern portion of the city with connections to other routes at the Mariner Mall and South Tower Avenue business area.
Frequency of service is the highest-ranked improvement the Duluth Transit Authority surveys show, three times higher than bus stop improvements, earlier or later service, and holiday service, said Chris Belden, the DTA’s planning and grants director and a member of the working group.
“The biggest challenge in Superior is funding,” Belden said.
The city’s share of mass transit costs in Superior is about 40 percent annually, Belden said.
Federal and state revenue hasn’t kept pace with cost increases for providing the service to fewer riders, according to a summary of city costs. The summary shows that costs between 2007 and 2017 increased 24%, but revenue from fares has declined, and state and federal contributions haven’t kept pace with cost increases.
“This is going to be a Superior Days agency issue,” Van Sickle said. “We had a large turnout of stakeholders at the issues identification meeting … and we’re going to take this to Madison.”
Van Sickle plans to lead a conversation with Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson during the annual lobbying effort in February to discuss mass transit in Superior and additional state funding to support it.
“Improved transit is a direct contributor to wealthier communities and employment and all of these things,” Van Sickle said. “It just doesn’t rise to the top when you’re talking about marginalized communities, but we’ve got to step up … it’s worth fighting for.”