(The Center Square) — Public transit improvement remains a legislative priority Pennsylvania, but the newest idea doesn’t focus isn’t Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.
Instead, it’s the rural countryside.
The scarce, scattered routes and lack of connection could be an opportunity, according to Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana. As such, he has proposed a resolution directing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a study on public transit in rural Pennsylvania.
“What I’ve discovered through several boards that I sit on and interactions with other county entities, is that a lot of people don’t have access to public transportation to get the basic essentials that they need,” Struzzi said. “Things like medical appointments, drug and alcohol treatments, going to work, those types of things.”
Struzzi said he wants a “holistic look at rural public transportation” and to suss out where the gaps lie.
His resolution would have the study assess rural public transit as it now exists, identify the needs and priorities of locals, examine best practices in other states, and provide some recommendations “to enhance mass/public transit options in rural communities.”
Nationally, Census Bureau surveys have found that about 2.5 million people in primarily rural areas don’t have access to a car at home. However, the vast majority of the 200 least-productive bus networks in America are in rural areas (though only one of those, Carbon County Community Transit, is in Pennsylvania). Utilization is low, and costs are higher.
A possible improvement is building a “demand-response” system instead of a fixed-route one. Demand-response sends a vehicle to pick up a passenger when requested instead of a fixed-route bus system.
“DR service is more efficient in rural contexts in particular because instead of a fixed route bus that runs no matter what, flexible scheduling only dispatches vehicles when there is actual demand — reducing the number of driver hours needed for the same number of trips,” according to the Cities Today Institute.
Other forms of rural transit make use of private drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation highlighted a decades-old program in Riverside County, California that reimburses friends and neighbors who drive patients to the doctor.
Figuring out what can be done in Pennsylvania might require more, however.
“I think it’s gonna be a culmination of innovation, maybe looking at new ways to offer public transportation, and I’m hoping that this study can also identify some of those solutions we could do, legislatively or financially,” Struzzi said.