Timber Trails works to evolve, meet need

People of Milaca and Princeton know the Timber Trails transit buses well but may not be aware of changes and fall events that show signs of the company’s continued evolution.
Director of Timber Trails, Helen Pieper, said the Kanabec County-based service started in 1995 as the area’s first public-transit company, serving riders there and in Mille Lacs County. Pieper remembers working as a driver when it was run out of a person’s house and had one bus.
In the transit company’s first year, its budget was about $32,000. Today it is working with a $1.4 million budget that could stand to be bigger. About 85 percent of it is funded through federal and state transit dollars, and the other 15 percent must come from local sources including fares.
Pieper became director in 2002 and said since then, the company has always made enough it is fare boxes to keep going, and it may have taken for granted that people recognize its importance.
Timber Trails carries in the neighborhood of 55,000 riders per year, including seniors, preschool kids and disadvantaged or disabled adults. Pieper said the transit service is often the link that enables people to live independently, and their ridership is what motivates them. Needs have expanded, funding has changed and many challenges are found with rural transportation and the rigors of federal reporting.
Pieper said the services are important, “75 percent of riders don’t have other transportation options.”
She said everything goes by the numbers though, and Timber Trails will approach things more proactively than in the past.
Saturday service begins
Aug. 5 marked the first time riders in Mora and Princeton can call Timber Trails for a ride 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., when service usually runs Monday-through-Friday only. Pieper had done some research that revealed the population and demand in Princeton and Mora warrant Saturday service, so she applied for and got a grant to start it.
Asked if the service also runs on Saturday in Milaca, where service is usually 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, she said, “Right now, Milaca doesn’t have the numbers.”
Pieper mentioned a few times the same problem for the northern end of the county, where need is great but population density is sparse. With the need for 5-7 riders per hour and often settling for less, the north end suffers from a regular, weekday shortage of transportation options.
She said the Saturday service so far was “not doing that great” in Princeton, but everyone realizes it will take time for word to spread and habits to change.
Funding shifts, appeals made
Pieper acknowledges two factors affecting Timber Trails’ funding in fairly major ways, including transportation to the Senior Dining site in Princeton run by Catholic Charities.
One factor is this year Mille Lacs County contracted with another organization, MTM, to be its provider of rides covered by medical assistance. The county also accepted a deal with the Developmental Achievement Center to provide veterans’ transportation. Both deals were done to save the county money but also mean less money from the county to Timber Trails.
Pieper said the other entities offered a good deal, and Timber Trails should have better defined the value it was providing to the county.
The other major factor is a bus-passbook system started last year that isn’t yielding expected results. It was offered across both counties but only took well in Princeton. Mostly hinged on the passbook success was the subsidy/stipend for people on a fixed income to go to Senior Dining at half or no price.
“In July of 2017 we determined that the bus pass system wasn’t working,” Pieper said about why it’s been discontinued.
Princeton used to maintain a notoriously old “blue bus” in order to carry seniors in town to and from the senior-dining site. The bus was retired last year, and the coupon system was expected to cover the gap in cost of getting approximately 15 seniors to and from the site five times per week.
Pieper had sent a request to the Princeton City Council in August asking the city to consider a bigger contribution or full support. Annually, the Senior Dining transit costs about $11,700, and the city has already committed to a $3,500 contribution.
The resulting shortfall has many scrambling to make up the difference so the dining transportation continues for seniors uninterrupted. Senior Dining coordinator Bridgitte Johnson offers information on how to help at phone number 763-389-4602, and a general appeal is underway
Summit will reveal much
Pieper said she is thrilled with another grant that enables Timber Trails to hold a transportation summit to learn needs and trends and goals.
Pieper was instructed to recruit “about 30” people from a broad mix of sectors, and there are firm commitments from 40 participants. She has already exceeded the event budget but considers that a good problem to have.
The crowd will include representatives from fellow provider MTM, the medical community, the disabled and senior sectors, counties, northern residents and others. Each will be asked to come prepared to talk about their area’s three highest transportation needs, and Pieper said her job at the summit will be to listen and learn. Already she’s been surprised to hear that rural Uber is on people’s want list.
The summit happens Sept. 26-27 and will be facilitated by professionals from the grant-giving entity Easter Seals. The whole award totals $100,000 and will include $25,000 for planning, the summit and an upcoming survey that anyone will be able to access online at the Timber Trails website. Another $75,000 will be used to implement solutions identified at the summit and in the survey. Pieper said the summit will result in better trust, a coalition and a long-term plan.
“We were the only one in Minnesota that got chosen,” said Pieper about the grant. “We wanted a real thorough look at what’s needed.”