Buses set to restart in Nebraska city after former leader’s alleged $1 million theft

The buses serving the Norfolk area are on track to start running in March, transit staff said Wednesday morning.

North Fork Area Transit, a bus system with routes through Norfolk and Madison County, met its $500,000 fundraising goal, the board announced Wednesday, the amount it needed to raise to secure an additional half-million dollars promised by the Johnny Carson Foundation. 

Hours after Flatwater Free Press published its Feb. 24 story on the bus system’s woes – a story involving its former director allegedly stealing up to $1 million in taxpayer money and then fleeing the country – an Omaha-area donor pledged the amount needed to restart bus operations.

This means that thousands of riders left stranded when the bus system halted in January – riders including large groups of senior citizens, employees of local manufacturing and meatpacking plants, and residents with disabilities – will again be able to catch a ride, likely by the end of March. 

“The board will have to wait for the foundation and sponsored pledges to come in, will pay bills, get staff hired, and then go,” said Corinne Donahue, project manager for the state’s mobility management team.  

The crowdfunding to bring back buses came after North Fork Area Transit halted operations on Jan. 6. The bus system’s general manager, Jeff Stewart, had allegedly been siphoning up to $1 million from the transit nonprofit’s coffers, as originally reported by local news outlets including the Norfolk Daily News and News Channel Nebraska. 

In December, a warrant was issued for Stewart’s arrest. 

But now, more than two months later, he’s still nowhere to be found. Authorities believe he’s fled the country, according to court records. 

Thanks to our sponsor

North Fork Area Transit stopped bus services to avoid falling further into debt, Donahue said. 

The combined $1 million will allow North Fork Area Transit to pay off that outstanding debt, and resume bus routes for at least two months, Donahue said. Keeping the routes going beyond that is expected to come from a mix of federal and state transit funding, as well as money from local sponsors. 

“[The Johnny Carson Foundation was] very clear that they want this service to get going again,” Donahue said. “It’s not just to pay debts.” 

North Fork Area Transit started expanding its routes in 2021, after the state flagged northeast Nebraska as needing more public transportation. The expansion brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in local, state and federal funding. 

It also turned the bus system into an essential service for Norfolk’s senior citizens, people with disabilities, students and people unable to afford cars, several past riders told the Flatwater Free Press. The bus system counted 10,000 rides in December 2022 alone, many for people traveling to work, doctors’ visits, dialysis appointments and college classes. 

When the bus system screeched to a halt, the area’s other mass transit options tried to pick up the slack. 

Ponca Express, a bus service run by the Ponca Tribe, took as many Norfolk-area riders as it could.

Norfolk City Council member Shane Clausen and his brother Aaron Clausen bought a used, wheelchair-friendly bus off of Facebook Marketplace and then hired a driver to transport as many riders as the lone bus could.

But the new makeshift system couldn’t come close to matching the need in and around Norfolk.

“As the system grew and made itself more accessible within the community, [the need] was eye-opening in a lot of ways,” said Josh Moenning, mayor of Norfolk. 

Last week, the Norfolk City Council pledged $150,000 to the bus service to help match the Carson Foundation’s pledge. 

When North Fork Area Transit returns, it will likely return smaller. In last week’s city council meeting, transit staff said if brought back, the bus system would likely need to cut back routes and adjust late-night hours. They’re also not sure how many of the roughly 60 former staff members will be returning. The annual budget will also be scaled back from $3.4 million to $2.5 million. 

The Norfolk City Council will also have a representative on the board, a condition of its $150,000 pledge.

By Natalia Alamdari

Natalia Alamdari has worked at newspapers throughout the country. Her reporting has taken her to small town shooting ranges in Missouri, contentious school board meetings in Delaware, and aquariums in Texas. Working at the Flatwater Free Press is a return to Nebraska — in college, she spent a summer interning at the Omaha World-Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and native Texan. When she’s not reporting, you can probably find her baking, petting her cat, or trying out a new crafty hobby.



Every Friday, we’ll deliver to your inbox Nebraska’s most interesting, meaningful, deeply reported and well-written news stories.