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Mass transit system one issue discussed at roundtable

The County Road 4 corridor is becoming clogged with rush hour traffic.

Early mornings and late afternoons, a steady stream of vehicles commutes back and forth to Park Rapids from lake or rural homes.

The same is true for state Highway 34, on either side of Park Rapids.

With gas hovering at the $4 per gallon mark, Hubbard County officials and area businesses are looking more seriously at a mass transit system, but it could be awhile before the buses are off and running.

July 15 a human resources roundtable was convened in Park Rapids to look at a number of issues that affect area employers, including affordable housing, median household income and a subsidized mass transit system.

Hubbard County coordinator Jack Paul attended the roundtable and reported the findings to the county board the following day.

Attendees included personnel from the county, Lamb Weston/RDO, Wal-Mart, Northstar, Team Industries, the Park Rapids Area Schools, some non-profit groups and other governmental agencies.

"Have you ever noticed that all the cars on Highway 4 only have a single driver in them?" asked Hubbard County commissioner Dick Devine.

"Think of the savings" individual drivers could enjoy if a mass transit system was in place, Paul remarked.

This is not the first time he's broached the subject with commissioners. Last month he and his assistant Deb Thompson presented the board with numerous cost-saving options to consider.

Paul has said that a rudimentary transit system could be easily implemented using vans or older school buses.

"Some businesses are even talking about subsidizing it," Paul said.

One such business is Team Industries, which thinks the idea has possibilities.

"It's certainly something we would consider," said Jennifer Killmer, Team Industries' human resources assistant. "We'd have to survey our population and see if there's a need for it."

Killmer said Team's 180 employees regularly commute from Wadena, Sebeka, Detroit Lakes and Walker, so the idea has merit.

But she said there might be some logistical concerns to work out, because most of Team's employees work a 10-hour shift from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., which is out of sync with other shifts in the area.

Human resource personnel did discuss federal grants, which are available through the US Department of Transportation, and which could cover start-up costs for a transit system.

For the present time, Wal-Mart isn't interested in jumping on the bus, said store manager Karenlee Carlson. "I don't have financial funds for that," she said. "Nobody's saying they're having a hard time getting to work."

But she added, "The whole world is struggling with gas prices."

The proposal would entail running an early bus from Lake George down County Road 4, delivering workers to starting shifts that begin at 7 a.m. A second bus would leave to accommodate all 8 to 5 workers, Paul suggested.

Another transit system would service the Akeley-Nevis area and a third would possibly cover a western route, either from Menahga or the Detroit Lakes region at similar times, returning workers at two different times in the afternoons as shifts end.

Hubbard County commissioners were lukewarm to the mass transit suggestion in June, questioning whether it actually would benefit the county.

Paul and Thompson said there would be an indirect benefit - the overall well-being of employees would likely contribute to productivity.

Commissioner Dick Devine questioned whether the county should be hiring bus drivers and investing in liability insurance when it's barely scraping by to fund the programs it's obligated to presently.

Paul reported other factors affecting the county economy and employers that were discussed at the roundtable:

n? Of the 7,500 households in Hubbard County, 900 (households) pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing and 800 earn less than $35,000 per year.

n? Hubbard County has the highest median price for a home in a 12-county area of all surrounding counties with 83 percent of all households owning their own homes. In Park Rapids, only 53 percent of households were homeowners.

n???Park Rapids had the lowest median estimated household income, extrapolated from 2005 census figures. That was $27,750; Akeley was $31,360; Nevis was $31,470; Laporte was $33,550 and Hubbard County was $42,610.

County board member Lyle Robinson questioned those figures, saying his research indicated Laporte residents had a median household income around $13,000.

But the overall report did concern board members, who indicated that the average cost of an "affordable" home was around $135,000.

"How are people going to buy a home with those wages?" questioned commissioner Donald "Doc" Carlson.

Paul said many grant programs are available to enter into home ownership, but commissioners questioned what potential homeowners would do when the grant money ran out.

Karenlee Carlson, no relation to the commissioner, said many of those issues do concern Wal-Mart employees. Although she said most Wal-Mart associates make good salaries and have good benefit packages, at a recent meeting of the store's 200 associates, she heard concerns about heating costs and minor concerns about the economy.

"Nobody's really saying 'I'm having a hard time making it,'" she said. "They're just worried in general like everyone else is.

"All of our money goes to non-profit organizations: schools, churches and we put $44,000 into the community" last year. But a transit system isn't in the cards for now, she said. "We can't just all of a sudden fund something like that," she said.

Killmer, meanwhile, said she is investigating the federal funding sources in the event Team wishes to pursue mass transit options.

"With the rural community we have here and so many people going to work at the same time it seems like a logical solution," she said.

Paul suggested to the board that the transit issue was something he won't give up on either because he believes there's momentum around the county to get some buses on the road.

He's someone who might use it. He lives on County Road 4.