EARL to cut back Elkader services

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


In a decision that surprised Elkader city officials, operations manager Shannon Nagel from the Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation (NEICAC), which oversees EARL Public Transit, said the organization will cut the number of service days it currently provides to Elkader from Tuesday and Thursday between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to just Tuesdays starting July 1.


In response to this unforeseen announcement, council member Deb Schmidt stated in a separate interview that she was “very surprised” and “would have liked to know” before the meeting.


“I am unsure of how this company works in picking places for their routes, but to just remove even one route/time is a problem for me. They had no reason other than a new director when I asked about that,” Schmidt said.


During the meeting, Schmidt inquired several times whether or not the Keystone Bridge project was to blame, but Nagel stated the decline started prior to the bridge closure. As Schmidt kept looking for answers for the decrease in services, the presentation ended without conclusion.


Schmidt stated afterward, “They came with no real reason to backing this one-day removal. In my opinion, they should’ve come sooner or called our city administration to express a concern that they were thinking of making a major decision in our community.”


However, in an exchange the Times-Register had with Nagel in the days that followed the meeting, the decision comes after two years of monitoring the ridership for the in-town service and noticing a downward trend in demand. The reason for that decline was still unknown, with Nagel offering up several possibilities, including changing demographics, population decline and limited availability of services due to decreasing drivers in the county.


Nagel also provided statistics that show a decline in the previous two years. In 2021, there were 206 in-town personal and medical trips made, with the peak coming during April through July. That number dropped to 110 in 2022, with 16 trips in March being the highest. Over seven months, the service did fewer than 10 trips of this type. 


Additionally, EARL provides services to RISE and Scenic Acres, and while those services won’t be interrupted, they have also seen a decline in demand, dropping from 1,007 in 2021 to 746 in 2022. 


In total, EARL trips declined from 1,213 in 2021 to 856 in 2022.


Another reason for the shift to one day versus two days in Elkader has to do with driver availability for medical trips and an overall streamlining of the system, something Nagel mentioned at the meeting as well as afterward. According to Nagel, due to drivers sitting and waiting in Elkader and being unused, during an eight-month period last year, EARL was unable to provide 60 trips for non-emergency medical appointments for Clayton County residents.


As for the process behind the decision, one aspect that concerned council member Tony Hauber was the apparent lack of investigation into why the demand dropped. On this issue, Nagel offered that the “discussion has been held with the drivers in Clayton County and on the management level of the organization, with the BOD input obtained as well.” 


However, there was no outreach attempt with the county to ascertain the reason for the decline among residents, though Nagel stated the organizations “has been open to input from the community.” Whether the community offered input and what that input included was not provided.


Hauber, both at the meeting and in a separate exchange, questioned the cause of the decrease in demand, with no explanation presented at the meeting. 


“If I was a business and my customers stopped showing up, and there was no discernible external cause for the demand dropping, I would want to know why,” Hauber said.


This is especially given the fact that walkability decreased for much of the last year with the bridge under construction. Hauber claimed, while the cost of used cars has increased and the elderly occupancy, the groups who are most likely to use the EARL services has remained steady. 


“If anything, I’d expect an increase in demand. Frankly, it’s upsetting to hear them come to us and say they are decreasing service without any investigation into or understanding of why the service isn’t getting as much usage,” Hauber said.


While Hauber and Schmidt were surprised and questioning, Elkader Mayor Josh Pope accepted the decision, stating he had to “trust their numbers.”


“If their numbers show there isn’t a great demand, then they have to make a decision that is best for them,” Pope said.


After reaching out to Nagel for further clarification on how the decision was arrived at, the response to Hauber’s inquest about an investigation and Schmidt’s concerns over how choices such as this potentially impact future funding decisions at the state level for rural America, NEICAC Transportation Director Lori Egan responded.


“As the regional public transportation system, we are focused on meeting the public transportation needs of the residents of northeast Iowa. We are tasked with providing public transportation services to areas in our region and we provide in-town services where there is the most demand for this service. All in-town service decisions are based on utilization and ridership,” Egan said.


Nagel implied that, if demand increased, NEICAC would reevaluate the decision and adjust accordingly. But as far as Hauber is concerned, it’s a small consolation.


“If their mandate is to support northeast Iowa by offering public transportation, they should see this as a giant failing that they plan to reduce that support by half to this community,” Hauber said.

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