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The wheels on the bus go round and round the Arrowhead

Dan Hinton, Jack Kangas, and Duane Roe, Arrowhead Transit's Lake County drivers.1 / 2
Cook County drivers Mark Quello and Robin Derscheid, with one of the brand new Arrowhead Transit buses.2 / 2

A banner in Katy Keranen's Two Harbors office tells the whole story in just five words: Public transportation for all. Keranen is the Lake and Cook County supervisor for Arrowhead Transit, a rural bus service covering seven Minnesota counties, one of the largest operations of its kind in the nation, she said.

Each day Arrowhead Transit takes folks to medical appointments, work, events, senior nutrition programs and shopping. Over 2000 people in Lake and Cook counties rely on the service each month. Even so, a campaign is underway to make folks aware that the service exists and to encourage more people to use public transportation.

"I'm surprised more people don't know about this," Keranen said enthusiastically, although she is aware that there is some confusion about who can ride the bus.

"One of the biggest misunderstandings that people have about Arrowhead Transit is that it's just for the elderly or people with special needs. It's for everyone," she said, noting that the bus can be a convenient alternative to driving. There are buses that operate within city limits and some that provide transportation to destinations up and down the shore and inland.

"We have service between Two Harbors and Duluth the first and third Friday of the month and another bus that originates in Grand Marias the second Tuesday and fourth Thursday of the month," said Keranen. The bus from Grand Marais makes a stop in Silver Bay and Two Harbors to pick up passengers on its way. Those with medical appointments in Duluth can be dropped at clinics in the downtown area, but in general the bus goes to the mall, Super One, Wal-Mart and Walgreens. The cost is $14.70 from Grand Marais, $7.35 from Silver Bay, or $3.30 from Two Harbors. A minimum of five riders is required for the bus to make the trip.

Buses are also available to provide transportation for groups, and businesses have contracted with Arrowhead Transit to provide shuttles. The Cook County Visitors' Bureau, for example, uses the service to provide shuttles between North Shore resorts and nightlife venues like Papa Charlie's at Lutsen Mountains.

"We do fall color tours and take groups back and forth to Duluth for plays, the symphony, dinner...the Christmas light tours are always popular," Keranen said.

The Red Hat Society, a social organization

for women over 50, also takes the bus to events on its calendar.

"The Red Hat ladies are lots of fun," said Jack Kangas, who has been an Arrowhead Transit driver for six years. Kangas said he enjoys his job.

"I just like the people we help out," he said. Keranen added that the staff contributes a great deal to the positive image of the agency. There are dispatchers, mechanics, administrative staff and many more who work behind the scenes to keep the wheels turning.

"We have a great staff. There are so many great people who contribute to the success of the agency. I've heard from people about how caring (the drivers) are. If they haven't seen someone who's a regular rider, they'll stop and check in on them just to make sure everything's okay," she said. The riders, said Kangas with a smile, appreciate the effort by reciprocating with loaves of bread, cookies and treats, especially around the holidays.

In addition to cost savings and the social benefits of ridership for some folks in the region, Arrowhead Transit is a critical link to employment and adult education classes, both of which contribute to a more positive economic future for individuals and families.

"Transportation is a humongous issue in rural areas," Keranen said, and she keeps a quote from former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis as a reminder of its importance: "For members of the community with specialized mobility needs, such as people with disabilities, older workers, youth and low-income earners, transportation is often the link that makes employment in good jobs possible."

Buses are equipped with lifts for people who use wheelchairs and those for whom stairs present a challenge and door to door service within the city limits is provided. Keranen cautioned, however that the service is not a taxi and certain times of day and days of the week are busy, so making travel plans in advance is recommended.

"Tuesdays are food shelf days," so she urges riders "call as soon as you know you need a ride. We do make people with appointments a priority." Just the same, not everyone's schedule can be accommodated, especially on short notice.

AEOA operates Arrowhead Transit on weekdays only. Ridership hasn't supported the need for weekend routes, thus far.

To arrange a ride in Lake County, or to get more information, call 218-834-2190. In Cook County, call 218-370-1515