Interested parties working to ensure no disruption in service
By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Delano city officials are beginning to look at options upon learning the joint powers agreement that governs River Rider public transportation will end June 30.
The River Rider service provides public transportation to Delano residents, in addition to other communities in Wright and Sherburne counties.
Sherburne County has provided notification it will be leaving the partnership.
Delano City Administrator Phil Kern told the city council Tuesday that he had attended a meeting with officials from St. Michael, Otsego, Buffalo, Albertville, Monticello, Howard Lake, Hanover, and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials to begin discussing what options for public transportation may be available.
Kern cited “lots of reasons” for the demise of River Rider, without getting into too many specifics at the council meeting.
In an e-mail update to the city council, Kern said MnDOT officials cited a number of management and performance issues that they said have been ongoing, and with Sherburne County pulling out of the partnership, River Rider’s time was up.
A task force, with each stakeholder having one seat, will be developed, with the first meeting to take place in early February.
Kern said at a recent Best of 12 meeting, conversation took place to potentially utilize some vehicles in the communities along the corridor. He also said the City of Howard Lake has taken the lead for applying for a grant for a transportation study and will be seeking a letter of support from Delano.
“There is quite a bit happening in terms of public transportation,” Kern said.
Kern said he understands Sherburne County will be joining a transportation cooperative in the St. Cloud area.
City Council Member Jack Russek expressed concern regarding River Rider drivers, noting he has heard complaints regarding them.
“You have to have patience and be willing to help,” Russek said. “I’ve heard it’s not always the best service. Hopefully now we can give them something great.”
Kern echoed Russek’s remarks, noting that it is the hope with this transition to provide a better service and no disruption to public transportation services in the community.
Presently, River Rider serves the Delano community from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.
River Rider Transit Director Chad Gessell said it is important for people to remember that public transportation is not going away.
“That transportation is still going to be there,” Gessell said, adding that the unknown is who is going to deliver the service.
“Everyone can feel assured that not only the River Rider Board, and Wright County commissioners who sit on it, all have the best interests of their population in mind,” Gessell said. “They’re not just going to sit back and let something happen.”
Gessell said ridership in Delano has decreased a bit in 2013, and said there were approximately 2,200 rides provided in Delano last year, with about 1,100 hours of service provided. He said it seems people who participate in the senior dining program offered in Delano aren’t utilizing the public transportation as much as in the past.
When Delano offered the Delano Transportation Program through Senior Community Services, Gessell said, in a sense, the city did “too good of a job.”
“A lot of people were provided instant service,” Gessell said. “It was more of a taxi cab service than a public bus. We came in and are a public bus, curb-to-curb service. It’s a credit to the people who ran it before that it was very available and personable, but I just can’t provide that same level of service and be cost-effective.”
Gessell said he and his staff had numerous meetings in Delano and had given out free bus passes in an effort to increase ridership in the community.
In addition to Delano and trips to the surrounding area (Franklin Township and Rockford), River Rider serves the communities of Buffalo, Monticello, and parts of Cokato and Annandale. Gessell said River Rider recently began a new service in the St. Michael/Hanover area that has seen good ridership.
Background and moving forward
Delano originally entered into an agreement with River Rider for public transportation services in late 2008, and service began in 2009.
Since 2007, the city had been attempting to find an efficient and cost-effective public transportation source after Senior Community Services (SCS) lost its funding for the former Delano Transportation Program.
The city and River Rider had discussions in late 2007 about providing the service for 2008, but at that time, River Rider did not have available hours from MnDOT to cover Delano’s needs.
Following that discussion, it was determined to be less expensive for Delano to provide its own transportation service than fund the deficits River Rider would have in meeting Delano’s needs, Kern wrote in a memo to the city council at the time.
In 2008, River Rider requested and received additional funding from MnDOT to cover Delano’s requested hours.
River Rider began providing the service to Delano in 2009 for an anticipated contribution of $21,651 from Delano. This is about $30,000 less than what Delano had spent to provide transportation services.
River Rider was created in 1979 as the Sherburne County Heartland Express, with Wright County eventually joining the program.
In July 2002, it became River Rider, encompassing parts of both Sherburne and Wright counties. In 2006, River Rider took over Monticello’s Heartland Express, and in 2007, it took over Annandale’s Heartland Express.
River Rider is governed by the River Rider Joint Powers Board, which is made up of representatives from both Sherburne and Wright counties.
These representatives handle every issue concerning River Rider, including the funding and direction of this transit system.
A letter from MnDOT Greater Minnesota Transit Program Director Tom Gottfried to members of the River Rider Joint Powers Board in October 2013 outlined several issues, along with requirements and recommendations regarding the operation of River Rider.
A “series of deficiencies” for the public transportation program were outlined, along with corrective actions and possible penalties.
Deficiencies identified included failure to comply with a drug and alcohol program by the due date, failure to use route match scheduling software, issues with revenue reporting and fare box reconciliation, lack of internal controls, and inconsistency in the payroll process.
“I will take some hits along the way for things that may not be perfect, but I’m not going to take a hit on that,” Gessell told the Delano Herald Journal, referring to the cited failure to comply with a drug and alcohol program by the due date.
He also said the software requirement had been burdensome to implement and said it didn’t work well for the drivers, but he noted River Rider is attempting to again implement the software. Gottfried’s letter indicated failure to comply with having the River Rider staff trained and operational with the Route Match software no later than Feb. 15 would result in the withholding of $57,565 from the first quarter state payment in 2014, and that all federal payments would be delayed until full compliance is met.
Additional areas of concern were identified in risk management, training, and safety and security of the River Rider facility, according to the MnDOT letter.
Gessell declined to address any other specific areas cited as deficiencies.
Another letter, dated Jan. 10, was sent from Mike Schadauer, the director of the office of transit for MnDOT, to Gessell in response to a letter Gessell wrote Dec. 13 requesting additional information from MnDOT about what options are available for River Rider if the joint powers agreement is dissolved, and asking for MnDOT’s position on the division of assets and the budget of River Rider.
Schadauer told Gessell in the letter “due primarily to the serious concerns discovered in the attached operation evaluation of River Rider, it is not appropriate for River Rider to continue as a stand-alone transit provider.”
Schadauer presented three options, which are for River Rider to merge with Meeker County Public Transit, Trailblazer Transit, or Tri-CAP transit connection, all of which serve areas bordering the existing River Rider coverage area.
Schadauer recommended Trailblazer Transit as being in the best position to provide transportation service in Wright County beginning July 1. He said Meeker County is considering merging with Kandiyohi Area Transit, and said Tri-CAP will be engaged in expanding to cover Sherburne County.
Trailblazer Transit is experienced in serving other metro area “collar counties,” has strong programs with human services organizations, and would approach a $3 million per year operational size if merged with Wright County, according to Schadauer.
“We feel that at a size of about $3 million in operating cost per year, a transit provider can have a large enough administrative staff to be knowledgeable at the many regulatory topics required to qualify for federal and state funds such as safety, asset management, civil rights, drug and alcohol oversight, procurement, etc.,” Schadauer wrote.
He added that Trailblazer Transit’s joint powers board expressed an interest in exploring expansion to Wright County at its Dec. 19 meeting.
Schadauer also re-emphasized MnDOT’s commitment to maintaining service in River Rider’s area, including the new service that began in the St. Michael/Hanover areas.
He said MnDOT will continue funding River Rider for service through June 30, and will work closely with River Rider to ensure service continues seamlessly July 1 with the future service provider.