Albert Stoddard, a senior advisor with LSC Transportation Consultants, shared an overview of a five-year Hubbard County transit plan that stakeholders are drafting. He met with the Hubbard County Board Tuesday.

"What we're working on is a process that's being done statewide" in rural areas, Stoddard explained. "It was initiated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), and the Minnesota Public Transportation Association has been involved as well," and is an outcome of the Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan.

In 2009, MnDOT completed the Greater Minnesota Transit Plan, a 20-year strategic plan that identified future transit need and demand for service in Greater Minnesota. The plan's vision is "a high-quality coordinated transit network that is integrated into the overall state transportation system and that meets the mobility needs of the people of Minnesota."

In 2010, the state Legislature asked MnDOT to determine the level of funding required to meet at least 80 percent of transit needs in Greater Minnesota by 2015 and 90 percent of needs by 2025. Published in 2011, the Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan provides a link between the goals and strategies from the 2009 plan and the funding allocations to each public transit system.

"Some of the focus is improving ridership, improving efficiency, better use of the financial resources that are available and then planning for the future," through five-year plans, Stoddard said.

"Each agency, each provider in the rural areas throughout the state has their own separate plan," he continued.

Hubbard County's final plan is to be delivered by June 30, 2019.

"We're nearing completion," Stoddard said. "We started July of last year."

LSC's consultant contract ends Sept. 30, 2019.

Transit goals

Jason Miller, senior transportation planner with LSC Transportation Consultants, reminded the board that the county's current transit service, Heartland Express, covers Park Rapids city limits plus a two-mile radius outside the city.

Passengers can dial-a-ride, and six vehicles cover the route, Miller said.

A connection to Bemidji runs twice per month, and there's contract work with the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center (DAC).

The annual operating budget is $430,000 and 38,000 annual passengers, Miller said, adding that the Heartland Express averages five passengers per hour and 120 trips per day. The buses are at or beyond capacity between 3 and 6 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays, he noted.

The draft plan states current needs are expanding the service area another five-mile radius, extending service hours later into the night, purchasing an additional bus and additional staffing, according to Miller.

Lamb Weston has been involved in the planning process and is interested in a commuter service, he said. There's also an effort with Essentia Health to connect to Fargo, which would require the purchase of one more bus.

Christy Campoll of RLS & Associates said a "financially constrained plan," which is "cost neutral," focuses on expanding the service area by five miles.

If funding is available, the plan proposes additional staffing - a dispatcher, a part-time driver and a part-time data manager. Projected personnel costs are $90,976 for 2020.

Capital costs in the plan include replacement vehicles in 2019, 2020, 2022 and 2024, with prices ranging $85,000 and $98,538 per vehicle.

New dispatching software, estimated at $25,000, is another proposed capital expense for 2020. "Currently, you are working with Paul Bunyan Transit to do your scheduling and dispatching," Campoll noted.

County Social Services Director Deb Vizecky said the goal is to discontinue Paul Bunyan Transit services due to their increasing fees. Hubbard County's 3G network will become obsolete at the end of this year and will need to be updated as well, added Heartland Express Coordinator Kelly Hagen. Bus equipment also needs to be replaced.

In 2021, additional fare collection technology is suggested in the plan, with an estimated cost of $10,000. "You have fareboxes on the vehicles, but they don't count passengers or money. There is technology to do some of that data and money management," Campoll said.

Challenges

Stoddard said one of the challenges identified to accomplish the plan's goals are a local funding for a grant match. Funds are available through MnDOT, federal transit administration and state funding, but typically requires a 15 percent local match, Stoddard said.

There are not funds for significant service expansion, he noted.

"Your facility is basically at capacity with your fleet size now," Stoddard said. No facility expansion is in the draft plan, but that could be reviewed in five years if major service expansion requires a larger fleet.

Hiring additional drivers has been another challenge, he said.

There is uncertainty regarding future DAC contracts, he concluded, "and that's a significant part of the service you're providing. Hopefully, at the state level, there'll be support for continuing those kind of contracts with local transit services."

Vizecky explained that revenues from the DAC contract, fares and the City of Park Rapids currently cover local matches, "so there's no additional cost to taxpayers."

She said the consultants worked closely with local stakeholders to develop a transit plan.

New medical transport program

Beginning July 1, a transportation community collaborative will launch a pilot program that provides non-emergency medical transportation from Park Rapids to Fargo.

According to Bryan McCoy, a transportation/mobility manager with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, over 4,000 people from all populations are referred to various Fargo medical facilities from Park Rapids and the surrounding area. "Affordable and reliable transportation" has been identified as "a major barrier for seniors and low-income populations."

A group of medical and social services agencies developed the pilot project.

The DAC is offering to operate a 14-passenger bus with room for two wheelchairs. It will travel to Fargo twice per week. Destinations include Essentia Health, the V.A. hospital and Sanford Health in Fargo. Other medical facility locations may be accommodated by request.

Seating is first come, first served. Round-trip fare is $10 cash only. Reservations may be made by calling 732-2421 Monday through Friday.

The bus will depart from Essentia Health in Park Rapids at 8 a.m. and return at 5 p.m.

The committee will meet monthly to discuss and review the operation.

"If the project is deemed successful, the goal is to seek long-term funding through MnDOT and other agencies," says McCoy.

If successful, the plan is to switch the service from the DAC to Hubbard County Transit.