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Driving toward a deal
Date, 2014

Transit negotiations continue in Wright County

By Ivan Raconteur
Herald Journal Editor

GLENCOE, MN – The Trailblazer Transit Joint Powers Board conducted a special meeting with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Wright County Wednesday to discuss expansion of Trailblazer into Wright County.

The tone of the three-hour meeting at Trailblazer headquarters in Glencoe was cautiously optimistic, but the big question that must be answered before any further progress is made is whether or not Wright County will become a partner in the process.

The county will be left without transit service when River Rider Transit is disbanded and discontinues service at the end of June.

MnDOT, which pays 85 percent of the cost of transit services, has expressed a commitment to ensuring service will continue after July 1, but Mike Shadauer, office director of MnDOT’s office of transit, noted MnDOT cannot guarantee service unless someone steps up and commits to paying the 15 percent local match.

Trailblazer has expressed a willingness to provide transportation service in Wright County, but talks between Trailblazer and some members of the Wright County Board have sometimes been contentious.

“I feel that, as a board, they are very divided at this time,” Wright County Coordinator Lee Kelly said when asked to comment on where the Wright County Board stands on the issue.

One theme that ran through Wednesday’s meeting was a sense of urgency. It was mentioned several times that even if the parties agree to move forward soon, much work remains to be done in order for Trailblazer to start providing transit service in Wright County July 1.

“We need a drop-dead date,” said McLeod County Commissioner Sheldon Nies, who serves on the Trailblazer board. “It cannot stretch beyond April. If it does, I’ll be the first on this board to make a motion to drop it.”

The issue could come to a head Tuesday, April 15.

Wright County Commissioner Mike Potter said he has asked Kelly to put a resolution on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting stating Wright County will move forward with an agreement.

Potter noted he is not a supporter of transit, but said, “If we’re going to be in it, let’s be in it.”

Potter said he has met with all of the city administrators in his district, and it is clear the cities want to be in an agreement with Trailblazer, and want the county to take the lead.

“We need to know, and you need to know,” Potter said of the proposed resolution vote. “No more games . . . we need to send a message from our board, and make it clear what we are going to do.”

Potter acknowledged even if the county commits to being a partner with Trailblazer, it is going to take time to work out all the details of a joint powers agreement.

Nies agreed, adding “It’s going to evolve. If we are partners, we’ll get the problems worked out.”

“I firmly believe we are going to get a better service for our constituents,” Potter said.

He described providing transit as a matter of fairness.

All Wright County residents are paying for transit, but townships are getting nothing out of the current arrangement, Potter noted.

“Either we make it good for the whole county, or forget it,” he said.

“I firmly believe your constituents will say it is awesome,” McLeod County Commissioner Kermit Terlinden, who also serves on the Trailblazer board, said. “But it will take time.”

“Looking into the future, I can see people from Sibley County using transit to go to Wright County and shop at the outlet mall,” he added.

A different philosophy

Some of the friction over the proposed arrangement is the result of a basic difference in philosophy between Trailblazer and River Rider.

Wright County Commissioner Pat Sawatzke has been the most vocal member of the board in his opposition to some of the proposals made by Trailblazer. Sawatzke serves on the River Rider joint powers board, and expressed concern over the potential cost of service if the county enters into an agreement with Trailblazer.

Trailblazer Joint Powers Board Member Jim Swanson summarized the two philosophies, noting Trailblazer’s system is based on providing rides when people need them, where they need them; while River Rider’s model has been based on a separate transit system in each town.

The consensus of those present appeared to be that if Wright County is to enter into a joint powers agreement with Trailblazer, the system will be operated based on the Trailblazer’s existing model.

“It was clear (in previous meetings) that we were going to assimilate to your model,” Potter said.

There was discussion about an interim transitional contract to provide service through the end of the year to allow time for the parties to work out a joint powers agreement.

Trailblazer Executive Director Gary Ludwig said there was some progress during a negotiation meeting April 4. The consensus of the meeting was that, if Wright County enters into a joint powers agreement with McLeod and Sibley counties, there should be two representatives from each county on the joint powers board.

What will it cost?

Those in attendance were careful to point out that it will be difficult to come up with a firm budget until more information is available.

Some board members expressed their intention to ensure tax dollars from McLeod and Sibley counties will not be used to subsidize Wright County.

Trailblazer Joint Powers Board Chair Bill Pinske said it is expected Wright County would be responsible for 35 percent of the local match, if there is one, as part of a joint powers agreement.

McLeod County would be responsible for 45 percent, and Sibley County would be responsible for 20 percent.

Those percentages would change over time as service levels change, and would be determined by the Trailblazer board.

Ludwig provided figures based on an estimated annual budget of $3,600,000 for the Trailblazer system. This is not a hard number, but is a worst-case scenario, and is based on an educated projection, and includes doubling the service in Wright County from six to 12 buses within 18 months, according to Ludwig.

Assuming the combined funding from MnDOT and fares collected will be $3 million, this would result in a target for annual operating local share of $600,000. Ludwig made it clear that this is based on level of service, which is determined by the Trailblazer board, and Wright County would participate in determining this level of service.

Wright County would be responsible for $210,000 (35 percent of $600,000).

Ludwig also noted that the level of service assumed in his projections would result in significant savings for mandatory transportation provided by Wright County Human Services.

The city view

Lori Johnson, city administrator for the City of Otsego, said the cities in Wright County believe it would be best if an agreement with Trailblazer is handled at the county level.

She noted they would like the townships, as well as cities to be included in the planning process so everyone in the county will have service.

Johnson said the cities will be sending letters of support to Wright County.

She added that each of the cities have different needs, but said she supports providing transit to the residents who need it.

Capital concerns

Ludwig said he is concerned about capital equipment and finding a facility in Wright County.

“I need a base of operations in Wright County,” Ludwig said.

He noted he has contacted three commercial Realtors in Wright County, but he has found no suitable facilities available for lease, and only two facilities available for purchase – one in Buffalo, and one in St. Michael.

There was discussion about possibly leasing space from another facility, such as a park-and-ride, and about the possibility of a lease-purchase agreement.

Trailblazer’s $2.5 million facility in Glencoe was made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus funding). Ludwig noted Trailblazer went through 13 other facilities before it was able to build its current facility.

Having enough buses is another concern.

Tom Gottfried, program director with MnDOT’s office of transit, said Wright County will acquire nine buses when River Rider’s assets are divided.

If an agreement with Trailblazer is approved, these buses will be transferred to Trailblazer.

However, Gottfried said it is possible two or three of those buses are not up to Trailblazer’s standards for road-worthiness.

Ludwig said, based on the current hours of service in Wright County, he will need six buses on the road plus two reserves, just to maintain service.

Herfindahl said even if Trailblazer decided to acquire more buses, there is currently a delay in delivery of new buses due to a chassis shortage.

She noted Trailblazer could order buses this year for delivery next year, but that will not help solve any immediate shortage.

MnDOT pays 80 percent of the cost of buses, and the remaining 20 percent must be paid by a local match.

Currently, Trailblazer serves a population of 50,000 with 14 buses. According to Ludwig, Wright County has 2.5 times the population, but fewer buses.

The vote

Wright County’s board meeting will take place Tuesday, April 15 at 9 a.m. at the Wright County Government Center in Buffalo.

Potter said if his fellow commissioners listen to their constituents, they will support an agreement with Trailblazer.

“The people say ‘this is what we want,’” Potter commented.

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