Ticket to ride

Transit Alternatives Otter Express, which runs buses in Fergus Falls, Breckenridge, Perham and Parkers Prairie will be offering free rides beginning Jan. 18.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is pulling out all the stops in the year ahead. Their goal is to reestablish ridership on transit buses.

From Jan. 18 onward people will be treated to free rides on Transit Alternatives Otter Express buses in Fergus Falls, Breckenridge, Perham and Parkers Prairie.

MnDOT has always reimbursed transit bus lines a percentage of their costs but now they are sweetening the pot.

“MnDOT is going to reimburse us 100% now,” transportation director Daryn Toso said Monday.

The local bus service offered free rides a couple of times in 2020 but still saw ridership plummet because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toso and his crew were “extremely busy” before the pandemic fell out of the sky, giving an average of 13,000 rides a month. After Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz put the brakes on travel in March, ridership plummeted. Over the last 11 months, Otter Express buses have carried roughly half the riders each month that they had before the crisis began.

Since they started to roll in 2006, Transit Alternatives has a fleet of 23 buses but Toso pointed out that some are kept in reserve. Drivers and passengers are separated by a shield and each bus is sanitized.

Toso is thrilled to have the opportunity to rebuild his hard-hit transit service. As much as the service was hurt by the COVID-19 scare, it was just as affected by the financial hardships many of its riders faced.

The greater portion of rides are given inside the city. Seniors and the disabled account for most of the ridership.

Those wishing a seat on an Otter Express bus only have to call and arrange their trip with the people at fleet headquarters. Pickup locations and times are then sent to the bus drivers.

“We encourage people to call us two days ahead,” Toso said

Otter Express busses operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays. 

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