Rural Public Transit? Nebraska's System Is Growing But Many Don't Know It Exists

A dirt road heading out of the Village of Winnebago in northeast Nebraska. (Becca Costello, NET News)
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February 13, 2020 - 6:45am

Limited public transportation can make it tough to get around in rural Nebraska. But there are more options than most Nebraskans realize, and state officials are working to change that. 


Long drives on rural roads are just part of the job for David Mentzer.

About 2,600 people live on the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska. Mentzer manages Winnebago Tribal Transit, a bus system that travels to employers like the WinnaVegas Casino, downtown Sioux City, and some college campuses.

In rural areas like this, narrow, winding roads can make driving difficult – not to mention up to 75% of Nebraskans in this part of the state don’t have regular access to a vehicle, according to research from Lissette Aliaga-Linares, a professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

"Even if we have one car in the household, if we are three adults, or two adults, in the household, we cannot always make it work that we are going to the same place," Aliaga-Linares said. 

David Mentzer manages Winnebago Tribal Transit, a fixed-route bus system that helps hundreds of Nebraskans commute to jobs at WinnaVegas Casino and in nearby Sioux City. (Becca Costello, NET News)

A recent grant from the Federal Transit Administration will allow Winnebago Tribal Transit to purchase a new van. (Becca Costello, NET News)

About 2,600 people live on the Winnebago Indian Reservation, but Winnebago Tribal Transit is available for anyone to ride. (Becca Costello, NET News)

"Around here, you live in a rural area, sometimes it's hard to even get from out of the country into town or a small town and meet up with transportation," Mentzer said. "[My drivers] do their best to give every opportunity to any of our passengers in the rural community to get where they need to be from point A to point B." 

The model is actually pretty common across the state. Eighty-two of Nebraska’s 93 counties have some form of public transportation. But even getting to a bus stop can be a challenge for many people, says Nebraska Department of Transportation Transit Manager Kari Ruse.

"We can transport people between Lincoln and Omaha. But when we drop them off in Omaha, let's say at the West Roads Mall, how are they going to get to their final destination?" Ruse said. "So we need to make sure that people have access to public transportation or perhaps if some of that is provided by a transportation networking company like Uber or Lyft, or a taxi cab."

One of those solutions comes from a Nebraska native working to solve this nationwide problem.

"I grew up in a small town called Virginia, Nebraska. There are 96 people, if you count the cats and dogs," said Valerie Lefter, Executive Director of Feonix Mobility Rising

Valerie Lefler is Executive Director of Feonix Mobility Rising, a Lincoln-based nonprofit working on rural transportation in five states. (Becca Costello, NET News)

The Lincoln-based nonprofit works on rural transportation in five states. Each project looks a little different, because each area’s needs are unique.

"In a community where we're focused on serving seniors, and there's no evening or weekend transportation, we deploy volunteer driver ecosystems, almost like an Uber for good, if you will," Lefler said. "In other communities we're helping refugees or low income individuals get access to employment opportunities. And so we work with taxis, we work with volunteer drivers, we work with public transit. And we all work together to help provide the best mobility ecosystem to really help the community provide transportation resources for folks in need."

That’s the model in western Nebraska, where Feonix is working with Panhandle Trails to recruit volunteer drivers to coordinate with the existing bus system that covers 16,000 square miles.

Jonnie Kusek is Transit Director for Panhandle Trails. She says the new demand response service launched a few months ago with two drivers, and they’re looking for more.

"One of our first transports was getting a gentleman home from a long term care facility that was almost 120 miles away from his home," Kusek said. "But because we promised that we could get him from his home to 60 miles away to be able to do physical therapy, they released him from the long term care facility."

Find public transportation throughout Nebraska online at nebraskatransit.com

Most of the transit options are subsidized by the Nebraska Department of Transportation, which supports more than 60 rural transit providers across the state.

The state manages state and federal funding available specifically for rural transportation. The money can cover 75% of operating costs and 90% of buying vehicles. The rest is up to local agencies to fund, which can be a major barrier.

But it’s a challenge worth facing.

Deb Lash grew up in Nebraska with doctors saying she would never be able to live independently. Now, she’s lived on her own for 20 years with a motorized wheelchair and a transit system that picks her up right at her door. 

Deb Lash has lived in Columbus, Nebraska all her life. She uses Columbus Area Transit two or three times each week to get around town for shopping, doctor appointments and outings with friends. (Becca Costello, NET News)

She calls it a lifeline for seniors and others with mobility challenges.

"Because it makes them more independent," Lash said. "I can't get into a regular car and I can't afford a vehicle that's got a lift on it. So this is my only option of getting around town to the grocery store, Walmart, even lunch with friends. It’s the only option I have." 

Although transit options in the state have grown in recent years, there’s still a general lack of awareness that rural public transportation even exists.

Lissette Aliaga-Linares says that's why self-reported need for public transit isn't a good way to determine actual need. 

"[In] most of the studies in places where there is investment in transit, you see that the demand peaks because it becomes part of your eligible options," Aliaga-Linares said. 

Kari Ruse says most people don’t know that anyone can use these services – and that’s a problem with a marketing solution. 

"In Cedar County since 2015, they have more than doubled the ridership. And that's not because the population of the county has doubled," Ruse said. "But we have a true transit champion in Cedar County, and she has marketed the service and she has expanded the service area."

Recent growth is no accident. NDOT has prioritized mobility over the past several years, and is pushing to expand options even more. It’s all part of the effort to get Nebraskans where they want to go. 

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