By Ivan Raconteur
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Discussions about the future of transit in Wright County have not always gone smoothly in recent weeks, but representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) have sent a clear message that they support the expansion of Trailblazer Transit into Wright County.
During a special meeting of the Trailblazer Transit Joint Powers Board Wednesday, Tom Gottfried, program director for MnDOT’s office of transit, and Mike Schadauer, office director for MnDOT’s office of transit, confirmed that MnDOT supports Trailblazer providing service in Wright County.
The Trailblazer board previously approved moving forward with providing transit service in Wright County for up to 18 months starting July 1, even without a local partner.
However, due to actions of the Wright County Board May 13, during which the board expressed interest in contracting with Midwest Paratransit Services, the Trailblazer board scheduled a special meeting May 21 to discuss the matter. It also asked the Wright County Board to comment.
During its meeting Tuesday, the Wright County Board approved a motion to send a letter to Trailblazer stating the county board would “prefer to secure a transit provider through the option of an open procurement process,” but the board would not “stand in the way of or oppose the pursuit of a joint powers agreement between the cities of Wright County and the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board.”
The motion was approved on a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Pat Sawatzke, Mark Daleiden, and Charlie Borrell in favor, and Commissioner Mike Potter and Board Chair Christine Husom opposed.
The cities began working toward a cooperative agreement after negotiations between the Wright County Board and the Trailblazer board broke down.
During Wednesday’s special meeting, the Trailblazer board considered whether to re-affirm its decision to extend service into Wright County, or reverse its decision.
After discussion, including input from Gottfried and Schadauer, the board upheld its decision to provide transit in Wright County.
Beverly Herfindahl, project manager with MnDOT’s office of transit, said nine of the buses allocated to Wright County in the breakup of River Rider Transit will be transferred to Trailblazer June 30.
Gottfried said it is unlikely all nine of those buses meet Trailblazer’s standards, but four or five might, and the rest will be brought into compliance or replaced.
In addition, MnDOT presented two contracts, which the Trailblazer Board approved.
The first is a transitional contract that will provide $350,000 between now and the end of the year to cover costs related to Trailblazer’s expansion into Wright County.
The second contract modifies the existing 2014 contract, providing an additional $500,000 between now and the end of the year.
In a May 14 letter to the Trailblazer board, Schadauer explained the contracts as follows: MnDOT will enter into a grant contract with Trailblazer to extend the Trailblazer service area to include all of Wright County effective no later than July 1. MnDOT will provide Wright County cities’ share of working capital (two months of operational costs) estimated at $150,000, which will be provided as a lump sum to Trailblazer in July.
MnDOT will also assure the projected local share (15 percent of $450,0000) of $67,500 will be covered by projected operational revenue and city obligations under their current contracts with RiverRider for the period July 1 through Dec. 31.
In addition, MnDOT will provide Trailblazer with a Transit for our Future (TFF) grant (estimated to be $100,000) to cover any transitional costs incurred by Trailblazer May 1 through July 31.
MnDOT will assist as needed on any agreed upon new vehicle capital needs for the service transition into Wright County.
MnDOT expects all nine vehicles (buses) with MnDOT vested value that are to be allocated to Wright County via the final disposition of the RiverRider Joint Powers Board to be transferred to Trailblazer on or before July 1.
Schadauer’s letter also states MnDOT is supporting the cities of Wright County as they form a joint powers board for public transit.
This board will be the single policy organization for the member cities of Wright County, and it will be this board that joins Trailblazer.
“MnDOT is committed to continued public transit service in Wright County and sees the cities’ joint powers board as the most viable local partner for the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board to achieve this,” Schadauer stated.
MnDOT will cover the local share of services July 1 through Dec. 31. This will be approximately $187,500 ($150,000 of working capital plus a possible $22,500 of local operating deficit, plus $15,000 for the local 15 percent of the TFF grant). The cities will be obligated to make up for this in the future when they can incorporate this into their annual budgets. The cities will pay Trailblazer over a period no longer than five years, and MnDOT will reduce grants to Trailblazer by an equal amount until the cities are fully vested in the working capital fund.
Gottfried made it clear McLeod and Sibley counties will not be paying any of the cost related to providing service in Wright County.
McLeod County Commissioner Kermit Terlinden, who serves on the Trailblazer board, said he firmly believes Trailblazer will be able to provide service in Wright County, and it would be a good fit for the county, but he cautioned it will take time.
Terlinden said he would like to work with the Wright County Board, so representation on the new joint powers board is at the same level of government, but he noted he is sure the Trailblazer board can work with the cities.
McLeod County Commissioner Sheldon Nies, who serves on the Trailblazer board, said he, too, would be willing to look at working with the Wright County Board, but said he doesn’t want to tie the current agreement to the Wright County Board.
Others, including city representatives, have also said they would prefer if the county board took the lead, because they see transit as a countywide issue. However, their main priority has been ensuring service will continue after River Rider ceases operations June 30.
Gottfried noted that the time for a smooth transition has passed, due to the time constraints, but said MnDOT is very supportive of Trailblazer providing service in Wright County.
“I feel very, very comfortable,” Nies said.
McLeod County Commissioner Ron Shimanski, who serves on the Trailblazer board, asked if the service in Wright County will be limited to the cities, or be countywide.
Trailblazer Transit Executive Director Gary Ludwig said Trailblazer will be expanding to include all of Wright County and a corridor into Hennepin County.
Shimanski asked where the buses will be stationed.
Ludwig said Trailblazer will need a base of operations in Wright County, but that won’t happen immediately.
The first three buses will be stationed in Glencoe, but he has been working on finding a base in Wright County.
Buffalo City Administrator Merton Auger expressed his appreciation to the Trailblazer board on behalf of Wright County cities. He said the board has been very professional, and the cities feel good about the progress that is being made.
Delano City Administrator Phil Kern said five cities have supported the agreement so far, and he expected more to join soon.
Annandale City Administrator said she appreciates the board’s willingness to work with the cities, and said their goal is to get service to the people.
Howard Lake City Administrator Nick Haggenmiller echoed the comments of the other administrators, and said Trailblazer runs a phenomenal organization.
Ludwig said the plan is to roll out service in Wright County with three buses operating all day, anchored by a contract with Functional Industries, but open to the general public as well.
He noted due to the limited time, Trailblazer may not be able to serve all of the rides River Rider was providing right away, but will add service as quickly as possible, and put four more buses on the road by the end of the year.
Ludwig urged patience as Trailblazer works to expand capacity. He noted there is already a plan to expand service in 2015, and said the goal is to have the cities participate in determining what that service will look like.
“This is just the beginning,” Gottfried agreed. “We have an opportunity to do more in 2015. This is an opportunity to move forward.
Potter expressed appreciation to the Trailblazer board for its patience and professionalism.
Ludwig said the next steps include hiring seven full-time and seven part-time drivers, and one additional dispatcher.
Wright County Board transit discussion
During Tuesday’s Wright County Board meeting, Sawatzke and Potter summarized their May 15 meeting with Schadauer and MnDOT Chief of Staff Eric Davis.
Sawatzke said three options emerged from that meeting. An agreement could be reached between Wright County cities and Trailblazer; the county could begin a procurement process to find a transit provider, and River Rider could be extended temporarily until another option is found; or the county could work out an agreement with Tri-CAP to provide administrative services, and the county could contract with Midwest Paratransit Services to provide transit.
Potter said MnDOT is not going to allow Wright County to operate a stand-alone transit system.
Sawatzke said working with Midwest Paratransit would meet many of MnDOT’s requirements.
Husom said she has received e-mail messages from residents who are in favor of the cities working with Trailblazer.
She noted the cities in Wright County want the county’s support.
Potter said there is only one option for Wright County, and that is Trailblazer.
“We’re out of time. We need to do something now,” Potter said.
“MnDOT has said Trailblazer may not be able to provide service July 1. The other two options can,” Sawatzke said.
Potter disagreed, and said MnDOT will not allow River Rider to continue.
Functional Industries President Rod Pederson and Functional Industries Board Member Tony Onnen expressed concern about transit.
Pederson said if transportation is interrupted, even for two weeks, it could practically shut down Functional Industries, which depends on transit services for its workers.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Pederson said. “It’s tragic.”
He also made reference to some of the board’s discussion regarding letters from MnDOT and Trailblazer.
“It’s amazing to me that two people can read the same letter and have two different opinions,” Pederson said. “We need transportation, and I don’t see any option other than Trailblazer.”
“I don’t think Trailblazer is the best option,” Borrell said.
Pederson said Functional Industries has been saving money and is ready to expand to provide additional services, and the possible interruption in transit service couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“I don’t see how we are going to survive,” Pederson said.
“Under any scenario, those rides are going to be there,” Sawatzke said. “MnDOT is not going to allow us to be without transit.”
There was further discussion regarding Trailblazer.
“If we go with them, we’d be with them into the future,” Sawatzke said. “Why not go with a better alternative now?”
“We don’t have all the facts,” Daleiden said.
Annandale City Council Member David Burd said the cities want leadership from the county.
“The issues are confused, in part, because you are confusing them,” Burd said.
He noted he had heard different answers to the same questions several times during the board’s discussion.
Burd said there were specific problems with River Rider, and that system wasn’t working. He said Trailblazer has a proven track record.
Sawatzke said Trailblazer’s cost per hour is $75, compared to the state average of $50, and River Rider’s cost was about $56 per hour.
“We can make the numbers say what we want,” Daleiden said.
He brought up cost per ride.
Sawatzke said River Rider’s cost per ride was $11.88, and Trailblazer’s is $12.62, but he said Trailblazer’s cost is “skewed” due to contract rides.
Burd noted it had been stated during the meeting that Trailblazer can’t provide service July 1, but Trailblazer says it can provide service.
Husom said three buses will be available to serve Functional Industries July 1, and those buses will be able to serve other people, as well.
Burd said service has been lacking while River Rider has been in operation.
He said the cities of Buffalo, Delano, Annandale, Howard Lake, and Montrose have already signed a joint powers agreement to work with Trailblazer.
The board recessed, as is its usual procedure when meetings go on for extended periods.
When the meeting was re-convened, before any further discussion took place, Sawatzke made the motion to send the letter to Trailblazer stating that Wright County would prefer to secure a transit provider through an open procurement process. As noted above, the motion was approved 3-2.