Upper Great Plains Success Story: Cities Area Transit Growing, Planning For The Future
By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor
Cooperation between two cities in neighboring states and a university continues to drive growth for a public transportation system located in the Upper Great Plains. Cities Area Transit (CAT), headquartered in Grand Forks, ND, also services neighboring East Grand Forks, MN, as well as the University of North Dakota, with fixed-route bus, dial-a-ride paratransit, and senior rider services — keeping CAT representatives busy as well as optimistic about future possibilities.
A joint agreement for public transportation service shared by the two cities, which are separated by a state line down the middle of the Red River, has been in place since the early 1980s. Grand Forks has a population of approximately 60,000 residents and is the third most populous city in North Dakota (after Fargo and Bismarck). Grand Forks is also the home of the University of North Dakota, along with companies involved in various industries such as defense, health care, manufacturing, food processing, and scientific research. It helps that the Grand Forks U.S. Air Force Base is located 16 miles west of the city.
East Grand Forks, meanwhile, has a population of approximately 9,200 residents and is also a vibrant community. The cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks form the center of the Grand Forks, ND-MN Metropolitan Statistical Area, often called Greater Grand Forks, with an estimated population of 104,362.
CAT operates within 18.56 square miles of Grand Forks and 5.9 square miles of East Grand Forks, for a total service area of 24.46 square miles, featuring a population of almost 70,000 residents.
“The service agreement between two cites for transit service has worked out very well over the years. There is a similar structure in place directly south of us, between Fargo, ND, and Moorhead, MN. They too are separated by the state line down the middle of the Red River,” Cities Area Transit Division Director Dale Bergman said.
He added a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks is in place involving Cities Area Transit’s operation. It includes the sharing of drivers and equipment, as well as following all rules/regulations from both states.
In 2021, CAT expanded by also providing bus service involving the campus of the University of North Dakota, located on the northwestern side of Grand Forks. Bergman said this service addition has greatly improved overall ridership at CAT.
“Our ridership has been increasing significantly over the last couple of years since making route changes and adjustments in 2019. Before the pandemic and the route changes, in 2019, Cities Area Transit’s overall ridership was 225,141. During the pandemic year of 2020, ridership fell to its lowest number of 132,354. Two years later, in 2022, it increased to 223,101 for the entire system,” Bergman said. “Ridership to date (in 2023) has increased to 213,474 and is expected to exceed 260,000 by year’s end. Our current daytime ridership at the University of North Dakota’s campus is 61,873, with a couple of months to go until the end of the year. Meanwhile, our campus nighttime ridership thus far in 2023 is 5,197. Our university campus service accounts for one-quarter of CAT’s entire ridership.”
The university used to have its own campus shuttle program, using traditional school buses, but the equipment was getting old and needed to be replaced.
‘They were having trouble covering the campus area within the desired half-hour time frame. We (Cities Area Transit) came up with a proposal that included new vehicles and updated routes, the latter of which were designed with the help of the university’s staff, student population and student government,” Bergman said. “Campus ridership has tripled since we started the program. Students, faculty, and staff can use the service by providing their university ID cards. For students, the campus service is part of their student fees.
“The main objective of our campus transportation, as well as all our service programs, is to get people to where they need to go in a convenient manner. A lot of the older university campus housing is being demolished and replaced by newer facilities. Therefore, many students are living off campus and require a good bus service, which we are happy to provide. It helps that many students from larger cities are more familiar with public transportation and often show their friends how to ride a campus bus.
“It’s been an interesting time frame with that service, and we enjoy a good working relationship with university officials. In fact, the university president recently complemented our service during his state-of-the-university address. It’s nice to see that we’re respected and helping the campus move forward.”
A History Of Service
There is much more to CAT, however, than providing campus transport. The transit system also provides fixed-route and complementary dial-a-ride paratransit, and senior rider services. In 2004, CAT added a senior citizen rider program as well, which is very similar to its paratransit service, focusing on trips to such locations as groceries stores, shopping centers, medical facilities, and senior centers.
“We hold several ‘transit days’ for seniors, involving the answering of questions, riding a transit bus around the block and meeting with drivers,” Bergman said. “We also include a paratransit vehicle and discuss our paratransit program for those who have a disability and can’t ride a regular bus. That type of ‘meet and greet’ program has helped us increase our senior ridership over the years. It really makes a difference to those individuals, giving them more freedom to go places.”
Officials at CAT have also found success reaching out to the public about the transit system’s various services through social media platforms and local television commercials. It’s the latter that has given Bergman and his team a lot of enjoyment and added attention in the community.
“One of the commercials has focused on the benefits of using our transit buses during harsh winter weather. It shows two people trying to shovel a car out of a large snowbank while a transit bus drives by with the words on its side, ‘Cold Car, Warm Bus,’” Bergman said. “The commercials have been a big hit, allowing us to receive a lot of positive feedback. They help remind people of the type of services we provide to make their lives easier when it comes to local transportation.”
Using the latest in technology is also helping riders of Cities Area Transit. That includes the CAT Prowler app, which allows passengers to track buses and better plan trips.
“Our passengers can click on the route that they want to use and see how far away their desired bus is from their current location. We are also in the process of introducing an app for our riders that will allow them to purchase tickets,” Bergman said. “I was asked when interviewed for my current position at CAT what I would do to help advance bus service. My response was to bring the transit system from the 20th to the 21st century. It’s important to keep up with technology, even for a local transit system. The same is true with our fleet of equipment. Right now, our oldest buses are 2010 models, and we are working on funding to replace them. After that, our next oldest buses are 2018 models.”
Currently, the fleet at Cities Area Transit includes 16 fixed-route buses and 16 paratransit/senior rider vehicles.
“On average, we use 11 of our fixed-route buses and 13 of our paratransit vehicles per day, although there are times when that number increases. For example, there were a couple of days recently when all 16 of our paratransit vehicles were on the road,” Bergman said.
Recently, Cities Area Transit has also been using two low-floor Frontrunner® mini-buses — from the Frontrunner Bus Group — for its fixed-route bus service. The vehicles have been a hit with CAT officials, drivers, and passengers.
“They are the perfect size for what we need. We can transport 14 passengers or eight passengers plus room for three wheelchairs — whatever fits our needs. We have not exceeded the load capacity of those vehicles. Our first Frontrunner was purchased in 2019 and we just ordered another one that we are expecting in the spring. That will bring a total of three Frontrunners for our fleet,” Bergman said. “We have also enjoyed working with the Frontrunner representatives. They have been fantastic from the get-go, helping us with any questions or minor changes that we wanted to make.
“I know there have been other transit properties in our part of the country that have also purchased these vehicles. They are easy to drive and are comfortable.”
Public transportation in Grand Forks dates to the 1930s, when the Grand Forks Street Railway Company started operating streetcar lines. The service eventually switched over to buses. Years later, a private company operated the service until the 1970s, which led to the eventual formation of Cities Area Transit.
Bergman has been at CAT since 1994, starting as a mechanic. He was promoted to head mechanic in 1997, supervisor of bus operations in 2000 and director in 2007.
“It’s been quite a ride, and I have greatly benefited by working with a lot of wonderful people at CAT. That includes Operations Supervisor David Tyce, Paratransit Supervisor & Mobility Manager Kristi Slominski, Lead Machinic Pete Hurley and Head Trainer David Bergum,” Bergman said. “Although we are a not-for-profit making business, I have always felt it’s important to operate CAT as a business. We are here to provide a service for our customers. That includes providing the right transportation options, vehicles, and proper customer service. We have been blessed with a great group of drivers and other employees, people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and go above the call of duty.”
Although all positions at a transit system are important, Bergman said the role of driver remains critical when it comes to safety and customer service.
“It most definitely can be a challenging job. Our supervisors do a great job of making sure drivers are properly trained so that they know what to do if, and when, a problem occurs. We also have cameras on board to monitor any issues. The No. 1 recommendation that I make to drivers involves the importance of greeting passengers as they come on board, and then thanking them when they leave. Those simple steps can make all the difference in the world,” Bergman said.
CAT has been fortunate to keep a nearly full staff of drivers on hand during today’s national driver shortage.
“We are currently short one mechanic and two paratransit operators, which I feel is not bad. We have worked hard to keep a strong staff of drivers. That includes hosting open houses at our facility. We make sure that those who are interested in becoming a driver who attend one of our open houses gets the opportunity to talk with our existing drivers. They will hear about the training that CAT provides, and that we can help them get their Class B CDL with passenger endorsement. We will even help them get a school bus endorsement,” Bergman said. “There are several of our drivers who also work for a local school bus company, assisting with the transportation of school bus riders.”
Taking advantage of the “moving billboards” on the sides of CAT vehicles has also helped the transit system attract new drivers. Such messages as “Follow Me To Your Next Job,” and, “How Would You Like To Operate This Vehicle?” have played a role in Cities Area Transit keeping driver staffing levels high.
“We were hurting for drivers in 2018 and 2019, but since then have worked very hard to fill the void,” Bergman said. “Part of that is making sure we offer a great place to work. That includes having a new training room and the coming together for fellowship events, such as potluck dinners. We also work hard to provide good wages and benefits.”
Bergman tells the story of one employee who found a second career as a CAT paratransit driver, demonstrating the benefits to such a career choice.
“He had been working in management for 29 years at a retail establishment and was tired of that type of work. He started working for us, driving a paratransit vehicle, and stopped me one day. He said, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be so much fun. I get to really help my passengers and have built a good comradeship with them,’” Bergman said. “Being a driver is great for those people who don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. It’s a job that keeps a person on the move, while meeting all different types of people.
“Our drivers also serve as great community ambassadors, setting good examples for their passengers, including those people who are from out of town.”
Along with growing ridership numbers, Cities Area Transit is expanding in other ways — most notably at its bus maintenance and administrative facility. During the recently completed first phase of expansion, office and dispatch areas were increased. The second phase includes the installation of a new wash bay, while also adding space to better house CAT’s fleet of vehicles and installing a new outdoor fueling station.
“Our old wash bay is being converted into a modern training room. That is important as we have an agreement in place to help train transit drivers from other areas of northeastern North Dakota. That includes helping people get their CDLs. We also work on vehicles at our facility that come from other transit providers,” Bergman said. “We believe in working with different area transit systems in a cooperative manner, such as through driver training and vehicle maintenance.”
Another growth initiative could involve expanding the service area of CAT in the future. Although nothing has been set in stone, Bergman said early discussions have taken place with the North Dakota Department of Transportation. They have focused on the possible addition of bus routes designed to reach rural communities in the area. Bergman said one advantage to having such routes is that they would help senior citizens in such areas travel to and from Grand Forks, without having to drive a car.
“The demographics of those smaller communities show a growing population of senior citizens. It would be nice to provide those people with a transportation option, so that they wouldn’t have to sell their homes just to take advantage of being in a more populated area,” Bergman said.
Although a possible CAT expansion of services into rural areas is still in the discussion stage, one subject not up for discussion is the need to remain vigilant when it comes to passenger safety and security. Bergman addressed a recent trend that suggests crime is on the rise within certain public transportation sectors.
“That trend may be the result of becoming too lax when it comes to protecting riders. It’s important to remember that many public transportation passengers are among the most vulnerable to crime, such as seniors and the disabled. As an industry, it’s important to not put up with that, but rather take a very strong stance against it,” Bergman said. “Although we (Cities Area Transit) have not employed a security force, we do maintain a presence within our system. Just about every day a supervisor or trainer will ride our vehicles, involving different routes at random times, helping to spot potential problems. We also talk to our drivers to see if there are any reoccurring issues, and it’s not unusual for the local police force to have an officer walking around our downtown transit center and walking through various buses, making his/her presence known.
“One problem we have had in the past involved intoxicated individuals who were causing issues with passengers and drivers. We greatly eliminated that problem by working with the local police and simply forbidding those people from riding our system in the future. That helped, as the problem has greatly dropped off. At Cities Area Transit, we take the stance that our passengers have the right to a clean, reliable, comfortable, and safe ride — one that is free of hassles from people who don’t behave and don’t follow the rules.”