Joint powers agreement details, future partnership are key issues
by Tim Hennagir
The wheels on Wright County’s continuing public transportation discussion went round and round for almost three hours June 30.
City council representatives met jointly at St. Michael City Hall to learn more about Trailblazer Transit’s recently initiated bus service and an Aug. 1 joint powers agreement deadline.
River Rider Public Transit ended service in Monticello and other cities earlier this week, effective June 30. Trailblazer is taking calls for riders at 1-320-864-1000.
According to Gary Ludwig, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board executive director, the still-evolving Wright County Area (WCAT) partnership with Sibley County and McLeod County to form a new Trailblazer Joint Powers Board will be necessary before any significant amount of service above and beyond the first seven buses will be added to serve Wright County residents. St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot served as moderator for Monday’s meeting.
According to Bot, the purpose of the meeting was to allow city council members to get more information and ask Trailblazer and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Office of Transit representatives questions. According to Bot, eight cities (Delano, Montrose, Waverly, Howard Lake, Cokato, Buffalo, Maple Lake and Annandale) have joined a coalition of Wright County cities that’s forming to present themselves as a viable partner to Sibley County and McCloud County for partnership on the Trailblazer Transit board. Five other cities in Wright County (Otsego, St. Michael, Albertville, Hanover and Monticello) must decide by Aug. 1 whether or not they want to join with the joint powers group formed by the eight cities mentioned above.
“One of the things we are going to try and do to keep the meeting moving in a positive direction is we are not going to talk about River Rider, what it was, or decisions that have or haven’t been made by Wright County,” Bot said. “Hopefully, the cities here tonight know they are looking at making a decisions between now and Aug. 1,” he added.
The prior history Bot alluded to was mentioned by Wright County Commissioner Charlie Borrell during a board meeting June 24.
Borrell, who attended the last River Rider meeting before the program dissolved June 30, said he has been stunned to see the difference in the manner in which Wright and Sherburne counties have been assimilated into new programs, saying that Sherburne County’s Tri-Cap program has been working hand in hand with River Rider to make the transition, while Wright County’s relationship with Trailblazer Transit has been adversarial.
During Monday night’s joint cities meeting in St. Michael, Monticello Mayor Clint Herbst led the charge in asking questions directed at Ludwig, Bev Herfindahl, MnDOT transit program coordinator and Tom Gottfried, MnDOT transit program director.
“We are still trying to figure out how all of this is going to work,” Herbst said. “We need the right information. There are too many cooks making [this transportation] soup,” he added.
Monticello Councilmember Glen Posusta was concerned the city of Monticello would eventually pay more money for less bus transportation service. “That’s our concern,” Posusta said. “We feel like we have a gun to our head.” Herbst also questioned the term of the proposed joint powers commitment involving WCAT participation. “Five years is pretty hefty to me,” Herbst said. “What I see here is a big fish hook.”
In an interview Tuesday morning, Ludwig said all of the cities that have signed the WCAT agreement are located in the Highway 55 and Highway 12 corridor.
“As far as Trailblazer is concerned, Trailblazer has agreed to go into Wright County without a partner, and Sibley and McLeod counties, as the governing agencies, are simply making decisions that they feel are in the best interests of Wright County,” Ludwig said. “That’s why we’ve established a service plan to do all of Wright County plus 1 mile around the county boarder plus a corridor into Hennepin County.”
According to Ludwig, the WCAT is not interested in providing service to cities that don’t partner with WCAT. “They are going to try an influence a change in the service plan to exclude those those cities that don’t participate. How that discussion will go, I have no idea,” Ludwig said, adding while the WCAT group has been very vocal, a service plan for 2015 has not been created.
“Trailblazer is Sibley County and McLeod County in a partnership,” Ludwig explained. “They are simply sitting back and waiting for a political scenario to play itself out in Wright County and are waiting for the WCAT group for finalize and formalize.”
According to Ludwig, MnDOT believes the current eight cities “have a substantial enough presence in Wright County” to create a group that would be a viable partner, and that commissioners in Sibley and McLeod also believe eight cities would be enough to enter into discussions about how transit in Wright County would work.
“They would be a viable partner now, but not as strong or as desirable as one that would have more partners,” Ludwig said, referring to the remaining Wright County cities that participated in Monday night’s meeting. “This all started when conversations discontinued with the Wright County Board of Commissioners” Ludwig said. “It was the cities themselves that asked Sibley County and McCloud County, if they would take the group and consider negotiating. The cities themselves offered this and said they would be able to unite fairly quickly and easily. That hasn’t happened. The two counties are sitting back and waiting to see whatever group of cities evolves out of this.”
Monticello City Administrator Jeff O’Neill said Tuesday morning that ever since the days of Heartland Express, any provision of transportation services has been out of the city’s hands. “The best we can do is to try and help facilitate the continuation of service whatever way we can and to encourage it,” he said.
O’Neill said he worked with Bot, St. Michael’s city administrator, to get Monday night’s meeting convened. “We wanted everybody to get information from Trailblazer and programs forward, as well as what was behind the joint powers agreement and all of that,” O’Neill said, adding the city isn’t against the joint powers agreement concept. “We just want more information,” he said. “There’s been no decision [by the city council] not to join this at all,” O’Neill added.
O’Neill said that Trailblazer Transit has told the city of Monticello that it’s trying to get another bus online by Aug. 11 to improve service in the local area.
(Editor’s Note: Monticello Times Freelancer John Holler contributed material to this news story. Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.)
Contact Tim Hennagir at firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Michael, Albertville, Hanover and Monticello city council members gather as St. Michael City Administrator Steve Bot moderates Joint Powers meeting to learn more about Trailblazer Transit’s recently initiated bus service and an Aug. 1 joint powers agreement deadline. (Sun staff photo by Tim Hennagir)
The Trailblazer Transit is now Wright County’s sole transportation provider, after the River Rider service ended June 30. County cities are looking to form a Joint Powers Agreement to negotiate with Trailblazer in light of ended negotiations between Trailblazer and Wright County.