By Gabe Licht
Delano Herald Journal Editor
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN Since July 1, Trailblazer Transit has been providing public transportation in Wright County. Shortly thereafter, 12 cities came together to form Wright County Area Transportation. Now, the two entities are moving toward a joint-powers agreement to officially include WCAT in Trailblazer Transit.
WCAT members met Tuesday to review the first few months of Trailblazer service in Wright County and approved seeking legal counsel to represent them during the drafting of the joint-powers agreement.
“Is it OK to have an attorney draft an agreement?” Trailblazer Executive Director Gary Ludwig asked. “We’ll get started on my end this week.”
“Our city attorney (Mark Johnson) is willing to do this,” Delano City Councilman Jack Russek said.
Delano City Administrator Phil Kern said Johnson is familiar with transit issues as the attorney for SouthWest Transit. WCAT approved seeking a proposal from Johnson to oversee the drafting of the joint-powers agreement. Under the agreement, WCAT will officially join Sibley and McLeod counties as members of Trailblazer.
Ludwig expects the first joint-powers meeting to take place in January.
He informed WCAT that the Trailblazer board approved the service plan that WCAT had agreed upon. Under the service plan, service will not be provided in or between Monticello, Otsego, Clearwater, South Haven and the townships. However, if residents of those cities and townships want to travel to or from one of the 12 Wright County cities in WCAT, that service will be permitted.
Previously, service was provided in corridors from Cokato to Dassel, from Winsted to Waconia, from Rockford to Medina and Plato to Norwood Young America. That service has been discontinued.
Service has also been discontinued in Monticello, which opted not to joining WCAT. Instead, Monticello signed a $40,000 per year contract with Hoglund Bus for one bus 10 hours per day.
“I think that’s less service than they’d get from Trailblazer,” Ludwig said.
However, that has opened up more resources to serve other communities.
“There will be pockets of opportunity from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” Ludwig said.
Additionally, three of the four buses currently serving Wright County are being moved to the Buffalo Public Works building.
Wright County should have seven buses on the road by the end of 2014 and 14 buses by the end of 2015. In total, Trailblazer is planning for 29 vehicles on the road, with six backups, by the end of 2015.
Trailblazer is seeking nine new buses at a total of $675,000. WCAT’s share would be about $33,750, to bring the estimated budget cost to $183,000 for 2015.
Ludwig said providing more contract service to entities like Functional Industries and DuraSupreme would provide more funds, but also limit service to the general public.
“There is a trade off with the service buses for the general public, especially in the early morning and late afternoon,” Ludwig said.
“With Wright County, we’d prefer you start by addressing the unmet need,” said Beverly Herfindahl, of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We probably won’t fill buses as much or bring as much revenue, but it will get the word out that public transportation is available. If you have too many contracts, you can’t help the lady who needs to get her hair cut or the kid who needs to get to piano lessons.”
WCAT would like a breakdown of where the rides are coming and going, as well as how many are being provided and how many are being denied. In July, there were 3,749 rides and 701 denials, but up-to-date numbers are not available.
“Trailblazer is not structured to do custom reports,” Ludwig said. “We need to hire someone to do reports. We spent almost a full day pulling the numbers and reconstructing them into a format you could read.”
“I’d like to see the number of denials, what times and where,” Buffalo City Administrator Merton Auger said. “If software needs to change, so be it. I want to see the numbers before we vote on a business plan.”
Ludwig said software is being upgraded and, once it is, Trailblazer will work to get that data.
Forrest “Butch” Amundsen, of Cokato, spoke out about how the Wright County Board of Commissioners has dealt with Trailblazer.
“I’m distressed with the Wright County Board,” Amundsen said. “They said there were promises made and promises not kept in Monticello. There’s so much negativity from the board all the time.”
Ludwig noted that everyone in the county has some access to public transit at no cost to the county. He added that negativity has affected his staff.
“This has been difficult for our staff, especially the dispatchers,” he said. “Some calls are directed to me. One couple had scathing comments saying their commissioner said this or that and we’re the problem. It’s affected our dispatchers. They’re hurt.”
On another note, Ludwig announced that Trailblazer received the Friends of Transit award because of their work with the cities in Wright County.