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Officials Seek Ways To Combat Isolation of Rural America

August 19, 1988

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ The bus that stops in Rushville five days a week is a lifeline for 72-year- old Evelyn Trenkle.

But she and the other 1,200 residents in the northwestern Nebraska town face losing their bus service and joining the ranks of thousands of rural Americans who live beyond the scope of scheduled bus, rail and air service.

″We’re just so isolated out here, I don’t know what we’d without it,″ said Mrs. Trenkle.

Rushville, near the South Dakota border, is 400 miles from Omaha and 30 miles from Chadron, the nearest community of any substance.

Arrow-Black Hills Stage Lines runs the bus that stops in Rushville. Two years ago, the company announced it would discontinue the route, from Rapid City, S.D., to Omaha, because of low ridership, said Jim Maly, schedule manager.

The bus is still running because towns along the route joined with the state and federal governments to work out a subsidy, but the bus could be threatened again when the subsidy runs out, Maly said.

The isolation of rural America concerns not only residents, but also the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

″Too often, if you live in a rural community, the bus may no longer come to town, nor may rail or air service be available,″ said Martin Fitzpatrick Jr., administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Office of Transportation.

″Many rural communities are now truly at the end of the line, with limited access to any form of public transportation,″ Fitzpatrick said.

His office, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the United Bus Owners of America, have spent a year studying rural transportation problems.

That work will culminate with a three-day conference beginning Monday in Omaha to develop a plan to ″reconnect rural America.″ Among those scheduled to speak are Gov. Kay Orr, Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, and Rep. Virginia Smith of Nebraska.

″During the last year, a new effort has begun to reconnect rural America. We hope this national meeting will consolidate those efforts for the future,″ Fitzpatrick said.

″We’ve learned that while service to rural communities indeed has been lost in many cases, there are a variety of ways rural transportation needs can be met,″ he said.

″For example, flexible point-to-point routes tailored to particular passenger needs are beginning to take the place of traditional, fixed-route systems. Also, rural passenger needs sometimes can be dovetailed with the shipment of goods in sparsely populated areas.″

Steve Sprague, the United Bus Owners’ vice president for government affairs, said the conference should provide a blueprint for both governmental agencies and transportation providers.

″We want to try to pick and choose the most appropriate way communities and states can begin to build that intercity transportation service,″ Sprague said. ″When we walk away from Omaha we will know, hopefully, what are the best patterns to pursue.″

While Sprague concedes that many see the 1,600 bus owners and operators represented by his group as part of the problem, he says the association’s participation in the yearlong study proves the group wants to be part of a solution.

Federal, local or state subsidies for private carriers serving rural America can help solve the problem, he said.

″There is a middle ground somewhere between full public and fully private transportation that has not been identified for rural communities,″ he said.

But even with boosts like the subsidy provided to the Rushville bus route, service is far from guaranteed there. The $200,000 subsidy is a fixed sum, and Arrow-Black Hills will have to re-evaluate continuing the service when the money runs out, Maly said.

While many stranded by the loss of bus service stay home when they’re lonely or ill, Mrs. Trenkle says she would move to a town with bus or rail service.

″I don’t believe I would stay here; I just couldn’t,″ she said. ″I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. There are a lot of people like me who are elderly and can’t drive too far who need the bus service.″

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