You probably associate the words “public transport” with family or friends in Chicago, Denver,
Minneapolis, who take the train or bus to work. Some of these people get by with just one car, or avoid buying a second, relying on public transport.
You might be surprised to learn that most of the 1.6 million American homes without access to a car are in rural counties, not cities. How do these people move?
Recently, Shelly Mahan, Director of Transit for MIDAS since Fall 2021, invited me to her Fort Dodge office to find out.
MIDAS was founded in 1972 as an organization of the Iowa Council of State Governments of six north-central Iowa counties: Calhoun, Hamilton, Humboldt, Pocahontas, Webster, and Wright.
These intergovernmental agencies provide services that counties do not have the staff or funding to manage themselves, including planning, community development, housing, and public transportation. An 18-member board, with three representatives from each county, sets agency policy at monthly meetings, which are open to the public.
Today, 46 small red and white buses provide public transit in the six county area.
A single mechanic services the fleet at a store in downtown Fort Dodge.
A typical MIDAS bus seats 28 passengers and has an integrated lift to allow infirm or disabled people to travel without leaving their wheelchairs. All buses are equipped with cameras; some facing forward, some on either side, and some focused on the inside of the bus. The cameras work every time the bus moves and, Mahan explains, “are for the safety of the public and drivers.” The recordings are only accessible in the event of an accident, driver misconduct complaint, assault on the driver or other similar incidents.
The buses are based at MIDAS garages in Fort Dodge, Clarion, Humboldt and Webster City, positioning them close to the work they do every day.
Mahan says transportation demand in every county and city is different and can vary daily, seasonally, or by time of month.
The most common need is transportation to work, school, groceries or other errands, medical appointments, or for social purposes. Most customers are elderly, can no longer drive, do not own a car or have a disability.
Despite a reputation for “transport of last resort”, however, Mahan points out, “our service is open to everyone, at any time.”
Most buses operate in what MIDAS calls ” on demand “ service. For the public, it is simply “dial a trick.” Most people book ahead, call MIDAS and tell the operator where they live or want to be picked up, where they are going and when they need to be there and back.
MIDAS goes from there, with dispatchers working 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to organize the details of each service.
Adults pay $2.50 per trip with advance reservations for this generally door-to-door service. Seniors aged 60 or over who have applied through the Elderbridge On Aging agency can obtain an ID card entitling them to a reduced fare of $2 per trip.
If necessary, MIDAS runs other services to meet local needs.
One example is the use of the call-on-demand service by students attending Webster City Schools. This service is used by 25 students each school day and is well suited to students who, for various reasons, cannot use the regular school bus service.
Another MIDAS bus connects Fort Dodge to Prestage Foods of Iowa, the meat processing plant near Eagle Grove, helping workers who otherwise couldn’t get to work and helping the company hire much-needed workers.
Another such route takes residents of the North Central Iowa Correctional Facility at Fort Dodge to employment in Humboldt.
Several other employers in the six-county area want to start such a service as employees grapple with the high costs of owning and operating a car, but Mahan noted “we just don’t have the pilots right now.”
MIDAS Transit Funding is provided by the United States Government through the Federal Transit Administration’s Section 5311 Non-Urban Transit Program. These funds provide capital to build garages, terminals and new buses, as well as operating funds to cover driver salaries and maintenance expenses, and can only be used by cities or regions with 50,000 inhabitants or less. Section 5311 funds have been available annually since 1979 and today support demand-responsive transit, similar to that run by MIDAS, in all 99 counties of Iowa.
If you would like to try the MIDAS transit service, call 515-573-8145 for more information or to make a reservation for remote transit service to your door.
If you’re 60 or older and want to get a senior ID card that entitles you to discounted MIDAS transit fares, call Elderbridge Agency On Aging at 515-955-5244.