Nearly 11 years ago Ron Baumgart thought public transit in Pierre had come to an end.
The three recently repaired vehicles operated by River Cities Public Transit, of which Baumgart had become executive director only months before, burned in a fire on a Friday night.
But by the following Tuesday, four new vehicles were waiting at city hall.
“I think that was our first sign that there were people that believed in us and had faith in us,” Baumgart said.
Now, more than a decade later, RCPT not only celebrated the reopening of its newly expanded facilities Wednesday, it did it with some impressive cheerleading: Sen. Tim Johnson and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood were on hand to praise River Cities as a model of public transit in rural America.
Johnson and LaHood, accompanied by Baumgart, state Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist and Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill, spoke to a small group of the public and RCPT workers about the transit company’s impact to the area.
During his remarks, Johnson said that a decade ago, RCPT was making fewer than 20,000 annual trips in two counties. Today they make more than 300,000 trips in 11 counties and two local reservations, the Cheyenne River and Lower Brule Sioux, he said.
“The fact is that many South Dakotans depend on affordable and accessible public transportation to get to and from their jobs, save money on gas, and making ends meet,” Johnson said.
He also praised the rural bus system, which he said allows the elderly and those with specialized medical problems stay in their communities. It also connects tribal members with jobs, medical care, education, shops and services, Johnson said.
While speaking, LaHood gave an impassioned defense for the stimulus bill that provided money for public transit.
“The idea that the stimulus didn’t work is not believable here, where we are sitting, because we would not be sitting in this facility without it,” he said, adding that the infrastructure it provided to RCPT was “a very good use of taxpayer dollars.”
The recent improvements to the facility cost $5 million, including new GPS tracking and replacing aging vehicles. These necessary upgrades reflect a six-fold growth in ridership over the last five years, LaHood said.
Experience shows that public transit opens up new economic opportunities for generations to come and reduces fuel cost for local tax payers, he said.
Describing public transit as a “lifeline” to rural Americans, LaHood said honoring organizes such as RCPT, and accepting Johnson’s invitation to come out for the reopening, sends a signal to the rest of the country.
“[It’s] so people understand our investments don’t just go to the Chicagos and New Yorks and LAs of the world,” LaHood said.
Based on his travels to nearly all 50 states and roughly 300 cities, he said that RCPT was as good or better than any rural transportation system that he has seen.
“This will be the legacy of the leaders of this community; this is the kind of transportation that will be here for the next generation,” LaHood said.
According to Baumgart, RCPT employs 100 full- and part-time employees, with 100 vehicles in service and an annual payroll of $1.6 million. It provided more than 320,000 one-way trips last year and has 6,000 registered users.