Area users of public transportation may find there are new options coming in the next five years in terms of how they use Friendly Rider and where they can go.
A five-year transit plan was discussed at a Wadena County Commission meeting Tuesday, July 16. Presenting on the plan was transit director Randy Jahnke and transportation manager Lee Nichols. Nichols explained that each transit system has their own unique transit plan. It's a way for the system to be forward thinking and allows the main funding source, MnDOT, to prepare for capital expenses in the coming years. This particular plan started taking focus last July and was ready for presentation a year later after going through committee meetings.
Outlined in the plan were constrained plans, those that they feel need to be done in the next five years, and unconstrained, the wish list.
The constrained capital plan included the replacement of a bus every year through 2025, except 2024. In previous meetings Jahnke has explained that this process involves replacing the oldest van, and is a practice directed by MnDOT.
In addition to bus replacement they plan to add two ADA accessible vans. These have less capacity but would be able to more efficiently cover rural areas to those in need, Nichols explained.
The largest addition to the plan includes a facility expansion at about $1.5 million. This expansion would allow for all vehicles to be parked inside. Currently some must remain parked outside due to space constraints. A portion of the cost, which Jahnke considered the "gold package" was including a wash bay and maintenance bay for vehicles.
Not all commissioners were totally sold on the large expense of this part of the plan. Other plans included a backup generator, new computers and marketing campaign dollars.
Under operations plan changes was a new fixed route service area from Wadena to Staples with deviations to certain pickups along the way. This would be a daily route, with several trips back and forth Monday - Friday and implemented in 2020. Another addition included a round trip , bi-weekly from Wadena to Sebeka, implemented in 2023.
On the wish list is an electronic fare collection system. That included an unknown cost. Other technology included call recording system. Under unconstrained operations was the addition of a bi-weekly round trip intercity from Wadena to Sebeka and Menahga to Park Rapids.
The idea of a regular trip from the Sebeka/Menahga area to Park Rapids was one idea that Commissioner Jon Kangas pushed for, citing a lack of coverage for that area. Jahnke said if the demand was there, and could be proved to MnDOT, it was a trip that could be added.
The current routes mostly start from Wadena and go to either Motley, Browerville, Ottertail or Menahga. Kangas pointed out that while taxpayers of Wadena County fund this transit system, it seems to benefit areas outside of Wadena County.
Nichols explained that the routes are in place where the demand exists and if there is proof of demand in other areas of the county, routes could be funded for those locations. Commissioner Chuck Horsager chimed in showing that his constituents in the northeast portion of the county are not touched by the transit routes. As the area ages, and people seek to stay living in their homes longer, the need for transit service into more rural areas needs to be considered to allow those people to age in place.
Much of the costs associated with the transit system are split between the county and MnDOT, with the state typically picking up 80% of the bill. But the county has to put up their portion and typically covers the cost using fare funds. Jahnke added that MnDOT paid for the creation of the comprehensive plan.
Commissioners eventually approved of the plan document, realizing that it was a working document capable of alterations.
"This is not set in stone," Nichols said. "This is a discussion you can have."
Nichols summarized he county transit service as doing very well. He pointed out that the funding of these capital and operations plans would be mostly covered by revenues based on projected costs and revenues. He pointed out two years where there would be significant shortfalls expected if all projects were to proceed.
In other actions, commissioners:
• Approved the hire of Lee Lorentz, Highway Maintenance Worker I, at $12 per hour, with a start date of July 1.
• Approved the hire of Hope Torma, as Comprehensive Re-entry Social Worker, at $21.79 per hour, with a start date of July 29. Commissioners noted that this is a new position. Commissioner Kangas asked that as it is a new position, it should be stated the full financial implications of this new addition. County coordinator Ryan Odden said that information could be shared.
• Approved the low bid from Blombeck Construction Inc. of Eagle Bend for a total bid price of $199,418.65 for the stabilized full depth reclamation and centerline culvert replacement on CR 130 from TH 71 to CSAH 23. This project would start this summer and paving of the roadway would be complete in 2020. Odden noted that this project is made possible through Local Option SalesTax (LOST) funds. He explained that since its start in 2014, LOST has brought in about $3.6 million to fix roads all over the county.
"I think we're getting good county-wide impact with these dollars," Odden said. The project received three bids, all of which were over the engineer's estimates.
• Approved the purchase of office furniture for the newly remodeled IT department. IT is moving into old probationary area and is close to completion. The furniture from the old location is 12-14 years old and has been customized for different locations in the past, according to IT director Dave Hotchkiss. The design is fitted for two full time people in the tech area, as well as an office with furniture for the IT Coordinators office. Costs for the furniture were bid out and the recommended cost was $4,248.
• Directed Odden to go back for lawn mower quotes for use at the fairgrounds. All quotes received were higher than the $10,000 amount approved. The commissioners suggested a smaller size without a bagger attachment.