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Riders tout safe, fun commute

The Rolling River Riders' new van seats 12 on daily trips between Red Wing and St. Paul. The vanpool has room for five more commuters. Photo provided by Roy Hakala.

When Roy Hakala expanded his Red Wing dental practice to St. Paul, it meant the start of a nearly 100-mile daily commute.

"Driving every day became onerous," Hakala said.

To help make the trip more manageable, Hakala turned to a local vanpool program, which he stayed in until extended business hours made him drop out. Then he injured his leg, and, unable to drive, joined back up for about a year. Six years ago an eye injury brought him back once again - this time for good.

Started in 1989, a vanpool group known as the Rolling River Riders has ferried members between Red Wing and St. Paul. But with rider membership at an all-time low, the Riders are looking for a few commuters to bolster their ranks.

The group recently leased a new 12-passenger van with bucket seats, Hakala said. And there is still space for about five more people.

The van rides weekdays between Red Wing and downtown St. Paul. Exact pick-up and drop-off times and locations are negotiable depending on the needs of passengers, Hakala said. Currently the group meets mornings at the Studebaker ramp between East Ave. and Bush St., but the van will also pick up riders at local residences and in Hastings.

Members take turns driving if they are able, Hakala said. "Generally we have one person drive up and one person drive back. A lot of times we even split the distance."

He added: "So as far as safety goes, you've got two people in the front at all times, which means more eyes on the road looking for hazards."

The vanpool has never had an at-fault accident, Hakala said. "It's a really straight, safe run."

The program can be an invaluable safety net for the community, Hakala said. Besides his own experience getting involved with the group after injuries, he said the vanpool also helped past members with mental handicaps and no driver's license get to their jobs.

"The vanpool kept them employed," Hakala said. "Without the van, they'd have to hire someone to drive them, and I'm not sure how they could afford it."

The vanpool is part of a Metropolitan Council program that subsidizes the cost of leasing the van, according to the Metro Transit website. Monthly rider fees are determined by distance traveled, the size of the van and the number of passengers among other factors.

"It's incredibly cheap," Hakala said. The group pays around $600 a month to lease the van, which includes insurance and maintenance. Splitting that amount between riders and adding the cost of gas brings the monthly total per person to around $150.

"And the more people we have, the cheaper it is," Hakala said.

Joining the vanpool also means reducing fuel consumption and preventing wear on personal vehicles.

With the vanpool averaging 10 members since 1989, Hakala estimates they have saved over five million miles on members' vehicles. At an average of 20 miles per gallon, that equates to more than 250,000 gallons of gasoline.

"We even had a couple people who realized they didn't need to buy a second car because of the program," Hakala said.

For more information on the Rolling River Riders or to sign up call Cindy Degener at 651-388-4901.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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