Newtrax transportation service blooms from partnership and innovation

June 2020 Update

By Sheila Holbrook-White, Mobility Coordinator for Washington County Community Services

Newtrax bus with lift in back Newtrax is an innovative partnership created in 2011 between two long-established day training and habilitation (DT&H) nonprofits, PAI and Merrick, Inc., to increase the efficiency of transportation services to the persons with disabilities they serve.

As a Section 5310 Transit Coordination Assistance Project, Newtrax continues to be guided by its founding principles of innovation and partnership. Mike Greenbaum, who previously served as finance and development director at Merrick, became the first full-time executive director of Newtrax, which is located in White Bear Lake.

The Newtrax approach — innovating new services through partnerships while remaining flexible and nimble — has led to an unusual array of projects with multiple partners, passenger populations, and objectives. Included in the far-reaching Newtrax portfolio:

  • Connecting students to prosperity: Newtrax is making evening and weekend classes feasible for many first-generation Century College students, some non-traditional in age and life experience.
  • Partnering to support greater access to care: Newtrax is expanding connections to healthcare and wellness services by partnering with M Health Fairview to provide rides to and from multiple healthcare facilities for women from the Karen community one day a week. A similar initiative being planned will focus on increasing access to the Roselawn Clinic for men from the Karen community who live on the border between Roseville, Saint Paul, and Little Canada.
  • Crossing new technological frontiers: Newtrax is actively involved in a major technological pilot scheduled to begin in October (or possibly later due to Covid-19-related delays) using an automated vehicle (AV) to connect older adults and persons with disabilities to multiple destinations. Those destinations include senior living facilities, vocational programs for persons with disabilities, and the White Bear Lake YMCA, running on a 1.25-mile fixed-route loop. The project is a unique partnership with the City of White Bear Lake, the White Bear Lake School District, the White Bear Lake Chamber of Commerce, Ramsey County, the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). The pilot, which heralds a new wave of technology in its operation, also will test the functional operations of an AV over 12 months, including a Minnesota winter — information that is critical to MnDOT. But the AV pilot is more than a simple demonstration — it also will provide cutting-edge educational opportunities to high school, community college, and university students preparing for related careers.

How Newtrax got started

Newtrax had an aha moment in its early days of providing transportation services mostly to individuals with disabilities traveling to and from weekday DT&H activities. The organization realized that deploying vehicles and drivers during their midday downtime was an untapped revenue opportunity — not only providing more work for its highly valued drivers but also helping to spread the cost of vehicle operation across multiple funding streams.

In another innovative move, Newtrax hired Scott Olson, a longtime sales account manager, as its community transportation coordinator. Olson has focused on building the relationships and infrastructure to connect senior and disability communities to the transportation services Newtrax provides.

Olson's extensive network, coupled with Greenbaum's leadership, has yielded the nimble innovation for which Newtrax is known. For instance, Olson and Greenbaum recognized the explosive growth of the older adult population during a White Bear Lake School District-convened senior forum. They became deeply involved as facilitators for a transportation subcommittee aimed at understanding the wants and needs of older adults. When the White Bear Lake Senior Center proposed "running loops," Newtrax was able to contribute experience and expertise to make the concept efficient. Newtrax now provides community circulators to four communities in the metro region, with five more in development.

"Staying nimble, piloting new ideas, and refining ideas when they aren't working as expected," Olson says, "builds a collective understanding and knowledge of what works."

"We are not scared to say when something isn't working," Greenbaum adds.

Neither Greenbaum nor Olson had ever planned for a transportation-related career. Greenbaum, a banker by trade, left finance and began a career that's continued more than 20 years with and in support of people with disabilities after being inspired by a coworker with a disability during his finance career. That experience first led to volunteer roles before transitioning into jobs that eventually brought him to his current position as executive director at Newtrax.

Olson, who was looking for a new career after selling a company he co-owned, decided on a lark to apply as a driver for Newtrax. He was unaware that Mike Greenbaum, a longtime basketball acquaintance, served as the organization's executive director. Greenbaum instead offered Olson a much different role at Newtrax as transportation coordinator, a position that allows Olson to use his significant experience and skills from more than 30 years in management and sales. That sparked the beginning of an innovative partnership which has continued to grow and blossom.