Wright County Board stares down MnDOT in transit debate

Borrell: ‘There isn’t much more we can do’

By John Holler

Contributing Writer


For the last five months, Wright County has been at the center of a transit debate that has seemingly had no end — even when discussions have broken down.

It began late last year when Sherburne County informed Wright County that it was pulling out of the River Riders transit program. Wright County was then told by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to align with the Trailbazer transit group based out of Glencoe.

From the start, Wright County officials had problems with Trailblazer, citing that it is the second most expensive transit system in the state (behind only the system on the Red Lake Indian Reservation) and that money is spent much too freely for the service provided. When negotiations between Wright County and Trailblazer stalled, the board was given an ultimatum from Trailblazer to either be in or out of the negotiations. The board approved negotiating with Trailblazer by a 3-2 vote. But, citing that the county board wasn’t in more unanimity of purpose for the program, Trailblazer halted negotiations with the county and began working with cities that use the River Rider program.

At the meeting of the Wright County Board, the commissioners heard a presentation from Midwest Paratransit Services based out of Maple Grove, which not only could provide the county with a much less expensive transit program, but would be more centrally located to the heavy use areas of Wright County than Trailblazer.

However, the plan goes against the policy MnDOT has created and Mike Shadauer, who represented MnDOT at the board meeting, said that it trying to avoid stand-alone county transit systems and that this proposal would go against those stated goals.

“In our perspective, this is still a stand-alone county trying to do transit — something that we’re not doing anymore,” Shadauer said. “In this case, even though you’re working with a transit provider that works in many other areas, it would still be Wright County on its own. We would not support that.”

Commissioner Pat Sawatzke asked why MnDOT was so strongly opposed to Wright County trying to seek out a private option that would be cheaper for county residents as well as MnDOT, which provides 85 percent of the funding for local transit programs.

“If the cities would prefer to partner with Wright County in a mechanism like this, why would MnDOT stop the cities from participating in something they would rather be part of?” Sawatzke asked. “There’s nothing in law that prohibits Wright County from participating in this sort of arrangement and be supported by MnDOT. Of the goals stated by MnDOT, this arrangement with Midwest does meet the goals for transit as laid out by your office.”

While the commissioners were divided on the Trailblazer issue, they were unanimous in their support of Midwest, which would have to go through a competitive bidding process. But, Commissioners Mike Potter and Christine Husom, both of whom voted initially to join into a Joint Powers Agreement with Trailblazer, said they preferred the new option with Midwest Services. MnDOT’s Shadauer countered that the clock is ticking and that MnDOT will likely take a dim view to the 11th hour changes proposed by the county.

“It’s such a disappointment to us,” Shadauer said. “We didn’t force Trailblazer on you. We looked around to see where there were partners that had the capacity to work with Wright County. We found Trailblazer and suggested them. If Tri-Cap could have done it, we would have been fine with that. Here were are in a situation where we’re 48 days away from a need for transit rides. We’ve got Trailblazer ready to jump in there. We have other parties that could jump in there, but we can’t get them in. The River Rider Joint Powers Board breaks up on June 30. I have a very hard time saying yes to that. Even though it’s legal, but it’s really hard for us to say yes to that.”

Sawatzke grilled Shadauer about the stated goals of MnDOT’s transit policy and stated that, if taken at face value, the Midwest proposal would meet all of the criteria laid forth in the policy statement. However, Shadauer said that he doesn’t want to see this proposed agreement go through.

“I need to take this back to my leadership in MnDOT,” Shadauer said. “This is something that goes against everything we’re trying to accomplish right now. Our leadership with MnDOT has given us great support for everything we’re trying to accomplish right now. I don’t want (agree to anything) without bringing it back to them. Frankly, you can tell by the way I’ve presented things here that I hope they say no.”

On a motion by Borrell, the board voted to have negotiating committee members Sawatzke and Potter attend the MnDOT meeting when it is scheduled to represent the county’s interests in the matter.

“I don’t know if it will pass or not,” Borrell said. “Wright County doesn’t believe the Trailblazer and its high cost is of value to Wright County. We’ve found a system that can operate at about $50 an hour, as opposed to $78 an hour from Trailblazer. If MnDOT does the right thing, it will allow Wright County to do what is best for its own citizens, not force the most expensive transit system in the state. The ball in is MnDOT’s court now. All we can do is make our case and hope they will listen. If MnDOT says they won’t fund the program, then it’s dead. The ball is in their court and there isn’t much more we can do.”