Increasing transportation options for north Iowa workers

MM731_2015 Ride Transit Week-01How do you get where you need to go? Sometimes we take for granted the ability to just hop in the car and get from point A to point B.  For those who have transportation challenges, the Iowa Department of Transportation is working to make more options available.

According to the Iowa Economic Development’s website, Iowa’s $27.6 billion advanced manufacturing industry is the state’s single largest business sector with three times the revenue of agriculture. Many of these manufacturing facilities are located in less populated areas, making the search for employees a challenge. In north central Iowa, the Region 2 Transit System partners with area manufacturing plants to provide reliable transportation for employees to and from the workplace.

Kevin Kramer, Region 2 Transit in Mason City

Kevin Kramer, transit administrator for Region 2 Transit, a part of the North Iowa Area Council of Governments, says the commuter service, dubbed North Iowa Commuter Express (NICE), began as a pilot project in 2013. “The initial idea was to provide a 13-passenger van pool to get workers from Mason City to the Winnebago plant in Forest City,” he said. “We ran into a snag with that plan because none of the employees who needed transportation were qualified drivers. We worked with a variety of state and local funding programs to provide funding for a driver. The program quickly outgrew the 13-passenger vehicle and we are now using a 33-passenger bus for the daily trips.”

Each rider is charged $5 roundtrip, or $2.50 each way. A cost analysis shows that each of these employees could pay up to $10,000 per year in transportation costs by commuting alone every day, 30 miles one-way in a personal vehicle, as compared to $650 per year on the NICE bus. Kramer said, “If we fill all 33 seats each trip, the service will pay for itself. That doesn’t always happen now, so we’re using other funds to fill the gaps. The pool of employees we serve is somewhat transient, so we’re seeing different folks come and go over time.”

Interior of NICE bus

As the service gained popularity, other manufactures in Forest City were included. “3M and CDI, a custom painting company, are now part of the route,” said Kramer. “That increases our ridership, but also presents some additional challenges, mostly with scheduling.”

He said, “For Winnebago, they build their projects to specific orders. When there are lots of orders, workers’ shifts are longer. When the orders are down, the shifts could be shorter. It takes a lot of coordination to make sure we’re getting employees to work and back home at the right times.”

Schedules can also cause challenges when finding qualified drivers. Kramer explained that the driver will depart downtown Mason City around 5 a.m. en route to Forrest City to ensure all workers can start their shift by 6:15 a.m. each work day. Once this trip is complete, the driver fulfills other rides around the eight-county service area.

“Most days the drivers have a break for several hours in the middle of the day,” said Kramer. “Then the driver heads back to Forest City to make the return commuter route to Mason City. They are on the clock for six to eight hours a day, but the commitment is typically 12 or more hours. Finding qualified drivers to commit to that kind of time at $9 an hour isn’t easy. ”

In addition to scheduling and staffing, there are some liability issues that have come to light. Kramer said, “The legal issues with the Mason City to Forest City service are pretty straight-forward, but we’re working to establish van pools and other services where the driver would not be one of our employees. We’re talking now to a few employers about who would have liability in those cases. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer right now, but we’ll keep working on it until we can find a resolution.”

Van sideKramer said that between state transit dollars and a grant from the United Way, funding for NICE is set for the next three years, but after that there is a question as to whether or not this service can continue. He said, “There are several charitable foundations in the area that may become contributors, but funding will be a juggling act because of inconsistent ridership.

One thing that is clear about the NICE service is that transportation is a necessary and complicated process. The challenges of scheduling, inconsistent ridership, hiring and retention of qualified drivers, and funding will continue, but with the tenacity of transit managers like Kevin Kramer, solutions will be found to meet the personal needs of the riders and contribute to the local economy.  

For more information about the NICE bus or to schedule a ride, please contact Region 2 Transit System at 641-423-2262 or visit their website at


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Have a comment?


©  Iowa Department of Transportation.  All rights reserved.