Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation receives $9.3 million to expand the region’s rural transit options

by Annika Freiburger

Grand Rapids, MN – The Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation was awarded a $9.3 million federal Advanced Transportation Technology and Innovation Program (ATTAIN) grant to expand and extend the goMARTI pilot deployment in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

goMARTI (Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative) launched operations in September 2022 and consists of five self-driving vehicles, three of which have ADA-compliant wheelchair ramps. The vehicles provide free, on-demand transportation to approximately 70 pick-up and drop-off points in a 16.5 square mile area. The operations are provided by leading autonomous vehicle (AV) technology provider May Mobility and TransitTech software provider Via with rides booked using an on-demand smartphone application or the local call center 211. The demonstration project is in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and local partner funding. The goals of the project are to increase accessibility and transportation options for residents and visitors of the Grand Rapids area, advance and inform the AV technology in rural and winter conditions, foster community engagement and provide economic and workforce development opportunities.

Through the federal ATTAIN funding, the goMARTI expansion will incorporate advanced mobility options through a mixed fleet of on-demand, autonomous and electric vehicles, with the goal of providing increased access to essential services (including employment, education and healthcare), improving accessibility and providing exposure to new technologies and autonomous vehicle research in a rural environment. goMARTI’s operations will expand to include the community-requested stops east and south of the current area, such as Minnesota North College – Itasca, Second Harvest North Central Food Bank and Walmart. The plan for the ATTAIN funding is to add an additional autonomous vehicle to the fleet, as well as three fully electric (non-autonomous) vehicles that will serve the Grand Rapids and nearby communities of Cohasset and La Prairie. The majority of the fleet of vehicles will be wheelchair accessible, a desperately needed option in the region.

“Connecting residents with these rural community destinations will allow for equitable access to critical services in the region through a convenient and reliable shared mobility option. We are excited about continuing the state’s interagency collaboration between the Iron Range and MnDOT in the state’s transition to shared, electric and automated transportation,” said Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Commissioner Ida Rukavina. “With the new ATTAIN goMARTI project award and EV infrastructure planning underway, northeastern Minnesota is well positioned to help create a better future for rural transportation.”

The new ATTAIN project will also expand MnDOT’s trip planning platform in partnership with the Transit App, currently deployed in southern Minnesota, to Arrowhead Transit and the goMARTI project. Now, goMARTI will appear in the Transit App as an option for users planning journeys that can be served by the deployment. The new funding also includes continued research from the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies and workforce development efforts with Minnesota North College. Minnesota North College will be developing curriculum to leverage the project creating student experience opportunities, new curriculum opportunities and career pathways in new technology.

“Expanding goMARTI to Minnesota North College – Itasca is a big win for our current and prospective students. Reliable transportation is a barrier for many people, and this free and convenient shuttle option will make college much more accessible to those who don’t live on or near campus. This project also presents an opportunity for our college to prepare our future workforce by exposing students to emerging technologies and careers in the transportation industry,” said Dr. Michael Raich, president of Minnesota North College.

The PLUM Catalyst, with its experience in community-driven transportation projects and workforce development strategies, will serve as the project manager for the ATTAIN goMARTI project. PLUM has a proven track record of bringing together diverse stakeholders to develop and implement successful transportation projects that benefit communities. The goMARTI project vision was born out of the need for people with wheelchairs and other disabilities in rural communities to be able to safely, reliably and conveniently travel around the Iron Range region, while taking advantage of new technologies and autonomous vehicles. The goMARTI project will benefit from the PLUM’s expertise in collaborative, community-focused inclusive planning and implementation of the vision.

Project partners of the current goMARTI pilot project include: MnDOT, city of Grand Rapids, The PLUM Catalyst, May Mobility, Via, Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation, Itasca County, University of Minnesota, Arrowhead Transit, Mobility Mania and many others.