By Ivan Raconteur
Herald Journal Editor
WRIGHT COUNTY, MN During Tuesday’s meeting, the Wright County Board heard cities are moving forward with their own solution to the problem of transit service ending in the county June 30.
River Rider Transit will cease operations at that time, because Sherburne County, which had been part of River Rider, will instead be partnering with Tri-County Action Program (Tri-CAP), which currently provides public transportation in Benton, Morrison, and Stearns counties, along with the cities of Little Falls, Melrose, and Sauk Centre.
Wright County had begun negotiations with Trailblazer Transit, which serves Sibley and McLeod counties. Discussions did not go smoothly, and the Trailblazer joint powers board voted April 24 to discontinue negotiations with Wright County.
An April 28 letter from Trailblazer Executive Director Gary Ludwig outlined some of the reasons behind that board’s decision, and cast doubt on any agreement between Trailblazer and Wright County anytime soon.
Cities take the lead
“I am here on behalf of all of all the cities of Wright County, both cities that have transportation now, and have agreements with River Rider, and those that don’t,” Waverly Mayor Connie Holmes told the board.
She said all of the cities are concerned about the situation, and the clock is ticking.
“We don’t really know what is going to happen following July 1 (after River Rider Transit ceases operation),” Holmes commented.
She said the county needs to keep current levels of transit, but also, in the future, look at ways transportation can be expanded to areas that are not now served.
Holmes said this is good for residents, and good for the county, because transit is an important part of economic development plans.
“We believe, as we have stated in many letters to you, that the county should be the entity that deals with this,” Holmes said. “Our system needs to cover the entire county. Not just the cities, but the entire county.”
However, due to the time constraints, Holmes said the cities are prepared to enter into an agreement with Trailblazer as the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board has proposed.
“We have agreed to begin drafting a joint powers agreement that we would send to the Trailblazer board,” Holmes said. “The Buffalo city attorney has begun that process.”
Holmes made it clear that under this agreement, it would be the cities, not the county, on the new joint powers board.
“We also know that, if it would go in that direction, of a city joint powers board, it would essentially cover only 75 percent of residents. It would not cover 25 percent of your constituents, because it can’t cover the townships,” Holmes noted.
She added that, although cities would be paying their share of the cost above fare box revenue and the state’s contribution, they cannot ask city taxpayers to pay for service in the townships.
Holmes said after July 1, Functional Industries will be served (by Trailblazer), but others who currently rely on River Rider for transit will not.
She expressed her hope that whatever can be done to provide transit service in the county can be done quickly.
In comments after the meeting, Howard Lake City Administrator Nick Haggenmiller shared some of the same concerns expressed by Holmes.
“Mayor Holmes did a wonderful job of explaining the importance of the topic as it relates to cities of Wright County, and in particular un-served portions of the county, including the Highway 12 corridor communities of Howard Lake, Waverly and Montrose, Haggenmiller stated.
“Ideally,” he added, “the Howard Lake City Council as well as the vast majority of cities in the county, believes that transit is a countywide service and function, and as such, Wright County should enter into a partnership with a transit provider. Numerous letters and resolutions of support from cities within Wright County mirror this message.
“Unfortunately, and for various reasons, this matter got highly politicized, resulting in failed negotiations between Wright County and Trailblazer Transit. As a result, the cities of Wright County are actively working on a joint powers agreement that we would hope would serve a similar role for Trailblazer and offer quality transportation to the residents.
“A draft joint powers agreement may be in front of local city councils as early as next week for consideration.
“This model is not perfect, as cities provide services to taxpayers within corporate city limits. Therefore, we believe the potential exists for gaps in service in townships, unincorporated areas, or cities unwilling to partner via a joint powers agreement.”
Haggenmiller also commented on why he thinks transit is important.
“Statistically speaking, a statewide average used by the Minnesota Department of Transportation Rural Transit program identifies an average of 30 percent of any population to need and to potentially use public transportation,” Haggenmiller stated.
“These folks may be elderly, disabled, preschool students, commuters, and folks who are unable to otherwise obtain private transportation.
“To that end, we consider this to be an incredibly valuable service that has been grossly under served, and under marketed by the failed River Rider Transit. We’re working hard to ensure there are no gaps in service come July 1,” Haggenmiller stated.
He noted residents of Howard Lake and Highway 12 corridor have value, and he hopes their needs will be served under a new agreement.
Gary Ludwig, executive director of Trailblazer Transit, said Thursday he had been invited to a meeting of city representatives today to discuss a coalition of Wright County cities working out an agreement for transit service.
He said Trailblazer’s executive committee gave him parameters to follow in discussions with the cities.
Ludwig said the Trailblazer model of operation is to serve people regardless of borders. He said the Trailblazer board is having some difficulty coming to terms with potentially not serving people in the rural areas of Wright County, but might be willing to make a concession on this point in order to reach an agreement with the cities. He said this would likely be on a temporary basis, with the idea that service would be expanded to include all areas of the county at some point in the future.
He said if Trailblazer can help the people in Wright County, he would like to do it, but any agreement will require approval by the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board.
Ludwig noted that even if an agreement with the cities is reached soon, it is unlikely Trailblazer would be able to have service in place by July 1.
Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said he has had discussions with people at Tri-CAP, including the director of Tri-CAP and its director of transportation, and some board members, regarding whether Tri-CAP will reconsider providing service in Wright County.
Sawatzke said he has received some “positive feedback.”
In March, Tri-CAP was one of the transit providers Wright County met with in its search for transportation options.
Sawatzke said Tuesday that at the time of the March meeting, Tri-CAP considered Wright County as a future player, but was concerned about taking on Sherburne and Wright counties at the same time.
Based on his recent discussions, Sawatzke said Tri-CAP may be ready to take on Wright County sooner, rather than later.
Sawatzke said the people he spoke to pointed out the advantages of Wright County working with Tri-CAP, including major transportation corridors that exist between Wright County and the counties Tri-CAP is already serving, including Highway 101, Highway 25, I-94, Highway 55, and Highway 24.
Sawatzke said some people have expressed disappointment that Wright County was not partnering with Tri-CAP, because the connections between the two make it “a more logical transportation connection.”
Sawatzke made it clear the subject has not been discussed by the entire Tri-CAP board.
He said there was a meeting of the Tri-CAP executive committee (not the full board) Thursday.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said he would like to explore the possibility of working with Tri-CAP, and keep the county’s options open.
Commissioner Mike Potter said he would like to hear the opinions of the whole Tri-CAP Board.
Commissioner Mark Daleiden said the board will also need to find out where MnDOT stands on the issue.
Sawatzke said he had asked the Tri-CAP people he spoke to if MnDOT had given any indication it would not allow an agreement between Wright County and Tri-CAP, and they said “absolutely not.”
The board authorized Sawatzke and Potter to attend the Tri-CAP executive committee meeting.
Sawatzke suggested the Tri-CAP discussion and the cities’ proposed arrangement with Trailblazer could both proceed on parallel tracks.
Potter again expressed concern over the time frame. “The citizens of Wright County need to know where we are going,” Potter said.
Sawatzke stated late Wednesday that he had spoken with the director of Tri-CAP, and she indicated it may be better if they executive committee could have a discussion relative to the request by Wright County without Wright County officials present.
For that reason, Sawatzke and Potter did not attend the executive committee meeting.
Commissioner Charlie Borrell said Friday that although some members of the Tri-CAP executive committee were supportive of the idea of providing service in Wright County, there were concerns operationally about Tri-CAP’s ability to take on Wright County at this time, while it is expanding to provide service to Sherburne County, and it would not be able to do so in the time available.
Sawatzke confimed this Friday night.
“I spoke with a Commissioner from Benton County this morning,” Sawatzke noted.. “He stated that the executive committee was very receptive to Wright County’s request; however, the executive director was extremely concerned about their capacity to service Wright County. In particular this expansion would occur at the same time they bring on Sherburne County, and their transit director is intending to retire soon. Due to the overwhelming concerns of the Tri-CAP director, the executive committee felt they could not welcome Wright County into their system at this time.
“I felt we had a decent chance because a number of their board members that I spoke with acknowledged that Wright County was a good match to their system, and such an agreement would provide mutual benefits; however, I can understand that they would be reluctant to ignore the concerns of the staff that will be asked to implement their actions on the street.”