Cloud hangs over future of River Rider public transport

Wright County cities, MnDOT look at what’s next 

Back in 2009 Harland Zaben, of Delano, was one of the first passengers on Delano’s River Rider public transportation service, which was new to the city at the time. Above, he arrived at the Delano Senior Center for a hot noon meal. (Sun staff file photo by Susan Van Cleaf.)
Back in 2009 Harland Zaben, of Delano, was one of the first passengers on Delano’s River Rider public transportation service, which was new to the city at the time. Above, he arrived at the Delano Senior Center for a hot noon meal. (Sun staff file photo by Susan Van Cleaf.)

The future of public transportation via River Rider is in doubt in Wright County, but that does not mean public transportation service will go away, according to Chad Gessell, head of River Rider.

“We have been assured by MnDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) that public transportation will be there,” Gessell said in a Jan. 31 interview. “People don’t have to worry about it going away.” If Rider River service ends on June 30, someone different will provide public transportation.

“I just want to make sure our passengers have service,” he said.

River Rider has used its small buses to operate a “curb to curb” public transportation service in Wright County for more than a decade under a joint powers agreement with Sherburne County. A cloud formed over the public transportation arrangement when Sherburne County recently decided to dissolve the joint powers agreement. Sherburne County is forming a public transportation cooperative service with Stearns and Benton Counties.

Locally, Sherburne County’s change of direction will affect Delano which has had River Rider service for five years. Also, River Rider recently started up new public transportation services in St. Michael and Albertville. River Rider has provided 45,000 rides a year to people in Delano, Buffalo, Monticello, Otsego, St. Michael, Albertville and Hanover, Gessell said.

Delano City Administrator Phil Kern reported on the River Rider problem to the Delano City Council at its Jan. 21 meeting. He explained, “MnDOT has been providing financial support for public transit in greater Minnesota. MnDOT has indicated that as of July 1, River Rider will cease to exist.”

Kern said he had met with MnDOT and city officials from St. Michael, Otsego, Buffalo, Albertville, Monticello, Howard Lake and Montrose to discuss what options for public transportation might be available. MnDOT is starting a task force to address the topic. The first meeting will take place in mid February.

Gessell said in the interview, “We don’t know what direction River Rider is going.” He mentioned several possibilities for public transportation in Wright County. River Rider might merge with another public transportation service. Or River Rider might become a different entity under a different name — possibly operated by Wright County.

A possible merger might involve River Rider and Trail Blazer, which operates in McCleod and Sibley Counties. Or River Rider might connect with the Meeker County transportation cooperative, Gessell said.

The dissolution of the joint powers agreement between Sherburne and Wright Counties was “a total surprise” to Gessell. His goal is “to continue to provide services to the best of our ability.”

Kern said at the Delano City Council meeting that he hoped for a smooth transition from River Rider to some other public transportation alternative. “If that meeting last week was any indication, we will need some prayers that everything happens very smoothly,” he said.

He continued, “MnDOT says it will provide resources as needed to make that transition. We will keep people updated. We have a number of folks in town who depend upon public transportation for a number of reasons and we want to continue that and make sure that people do not see any interruption. Although the name on the side of the bus will change, we do not want the service to change. In fact, we hope that through this, service will be improved and will be better in the long run.”

Kern said that other entities in Wright County have been looking at how to improve public transportation. Best of 12 communities along Highway 12 have been discussing the use of vehicles in their communities to provide a commuter connection between cities. One goal is to continue transportation along Highway 12 one town to the east (Delano) and have drop off and pickup service for Wright County folks to access the Metropolitan Council transportation system.

Businesses in the Delano industrial park want to improve transportation options for workers, he said. This would enable employers to access more workers and make it easier for them to get to work. Howard Lake has the same issue as Delano and has taken the lead. Howard Lake “has put forth a grant” to study the Highway 12 corridor and see if there’s justification for “something like that.” Howard Lake is looking for a letter of support from Delano.

“From a staff perspective, with the amount of money the state puts into public transportation, it should be great,” Kern said. “The performance should be better than what it has been. That is what we have shared with River Rider in the past and when we met with MnDOT last week.”

Gessell, of River Rider, said the issue was a matter of expectations. The previous transportation service operated through the Delano Senior Center had evolved into something resembling a “taxi service,” with people calling in and expecting rides on the same day and sometimes on short notice.

“This is not what River Rider does,” he said. It really helps River Rider when people call a day ahead, so that River Rider can set its schedule for the next day. His company does the best it can with same day service.

Contact Susan Van Cleaf at [email protected]