Road to agreement may be a rough one
By Ivan Raconteur
Herald Journal Editor
Despite the fact Wright County Board approved initiating negotiations with Trailblazer Transit for transportation services during Tuesday’s meeting, there were indications there may be a rocky road ahead.
A meeting took place March 27 during which public transportation in Wright County was discussed.
Trailblazer Transit has emerged as the only viable option to have transportation service in place July 1, after RiverRider discontinues operation.
Trailblazer Transit Executive Director Gary Ludwig said the Trailblazer board would like to have an agreement on the primary points in place by Wednesday, April 9.
These points include division of local share of the cost, and representation on the board.
County Coordinator Lee Kelly noted a proposal made by Trailblazer during the March 27 meeting was a local match split in which Sibley County would pay 20 percent; McLeod County would pay 45 percent; and Wright County would pay 35 percent. This would make Wright County’s local match about $210,000 out of a total budget of $600,000.
“That baffles my mind,” Sawatzke said regarding the request for an agreement by April 9. “You want us to agree on funding before we decide what services Wright County needs from a menu of services.”
According to Ludwig, Wright County will not be able to choose what services it needs. The services will be determined by the Trailblazer board as a whole.
Ludwig said Trailblazer has a “one for all, all for one” philosophy, and all of the participating counties must agree on what services will be provided.
Sawatzke said that is different than what Trailblazer told the board during the March 27 meeting.
“You are not going to have an agreement in place by April 9,” Sawatzke said.
Ludwig replied that if an agreement is not reached by April 9, Trailblazer may turn to the cities in Wright County and try to work out an agreement with them.
“We need to find a partner,” Ludwig said. “We have already lost three months of time.”
Commissioner Mark Daleiden said when the county board met with MnDOT March 11 about transportation options, Wright County was still looking at other providers.
“You can’t tell me it was all Trailblazer (as the only option),” Daleiden said.
“How do you expect Wright County to come up with a decision April 9 when we were just given the information Thursday?” Daleiden asked.
“You’re not being reasonable,” Sawatzke told Ludwig. “Good luck getting 16 cities together.”
Sawatzke noted one option that was discussed during the March 27 meeting was contracting with Trailblazer through the end of the year, which would allow time to negotiate a joint powers agreement.
Ludwig said the board did discuss a desire to contract for service, but that contract would be with MnDOT, and whether that could evolve into a contract with Wright County would be up to the lawyers and the Trailblazer board.
Ludwig noted the Trailblazer board believes it will take time to negotiate a joint powers agreement with Wright County.
He said there is a lot involved in the proposed transition into Wright County, including facilities, vehicles, and capital investment.
The board approved initiating negotiations with Trailblazer, and appointed Sawatzke and Commissioner Michael Potter as its representatives, with Commissioner Charlie Borrell as an alternate.
Even the date of the next meeting seemed problematic.
Ludwig said Trailblazer has scheduled a special meeting at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 9 in Glencoe specifically to discuss Wright County.
Sawatzke noted Wright County representatives will be unable to attend that meeting because they have a previously scheduled meeting at 1 p.m. that day.
Sawatzke and Potter provided several days as options when they would be available to meet with Trailblazer.
Ludwig said he would present those options to his board chairman, and get back to Wright County.
Currently, bus service in Wright and Sherburne counties has been provided by RiverRider Transit, but Sherburne county recently announced its intention to pull out of the agreement at the end of June.
Sawatzke said one consideration was to have RiverRider operate solely in Wright County, but MnDOT would prefer that Wright County join with an existing entity.
Since MnDOT pays 85 percent of RiverRider’s operating expenses (and 80 percent of bus purchases), it has significant influence on future arrangements.
Trailblazer Transit provides about 150,000 rides per year. The service operates primarily within Sibley and McLeod counties, and up to one mile beyond county borders. Within this area, Trailblazer serves 21 cities, plus all the rural areas.
Service is also provided to Dassel, Cokato, Watertown, and Mount Olivet Rolling Acres in Norwood Young America.
Another program operated by the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board is SMART-RIDE, which can take passengers anywhere in the state with a bus, van, or volunteer driver.