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Citizens question new bus policies

By Staff | Nov 3, 2008

Driver Karl Kampf helps Helen Hanson off the bus in Blue Earth on Thursday.

Area residents had an opportunity to hear first hand the plans for operating Prairie Express Transit in Faribault County.

Four meetings were held around the county – one in Wells, Winnebago, Kiester and Blue Earth.

In Blue Earth last Monday night, some residents questioned the way reservations for rides are being handled.

Faribault County Commissioner Tom Loveall, a member of the transportation committee, says the plan is to follow a strict ‘first call, first serve’ reservation order.

“We have a new log-in system, and the person who calls in first is going to be able to reserve a specific time,” Loveall told the 11 residents in attendance at the meeting.

One resident questioned the plan, saying her son needed to reserve the bus at certain times.

“He is disabled and uses the bus to get to and from his job,” she said.

Loveall said the bus service cannot determine who deserves a ride more than whom.

“It is not a social services program,” he adds, “It is public transit.”

Loveall added the bus service is going to have to operate from curb-to-curb, and not door-to-door.

“This means we will pick up riders at their residence, but we cannot help people out of their home, or back into the residence,” Loveall says. “Our bus drivers are nice guys, and in the past they have helped riders more than they should.”

Jan Klassen of the State Department of Transportation (MnDOT), agreed.

“The bus driver needs to stay in close proximity of the bus,” she stated during the meeting. “The bus and the passengers are his responsibility. He can help people on and off the bus, but not into the residence.”

Loveall says the county needs to abide by MnDOT’s rules because the local program receives 85 percent of its funding from the state.

“Our budget is $170,000 and we only pay 15 percent of this amount from local funds,” Loveall says.

The state gets a lot of the transit money from the federal government, so federal guidelines also apply.

Another concern is the number of rides in the Blue Earth area compared to the rest of the county.

Commissioner Bill Groskreutz says there were 6,388 riders on the bus so far this year.

“Of those, 4,644 were Blue Earth,” Groskreutz says. That means they either came to Blue Earth or left from there.

Groskreutz says there have been 600 rides given in Wells, 250 in Winnebago, and just 146 in Kiester.

“We need to find ways to make this service available to more persons on the east side of the county,” he says.

Loveall says while service is important, costs are also a concern. If the county goes over the $170,000 budget, they incur 100 percent of the additional expense.

The rates for rides is going up from a base of $2 to a $3 charge.

The average cost to the bus service per rider is $13, Groskreutz says, so the service is always trying to gain more riders to spread the cost out.

“It costs $45 per hour to run the bus,” he says. The majority of the expense is the driver’s salary, and the fuel.

Loveall says it is impossible to recoup that full cost amount, but MnDOT wants them to come as close as possible. That would mean keeping the bus as full as possible each day.

Of course, keeping the bus full may mean some people cannot get the ride they need, when they need it, Loveall pointed out.

Other issues discussed included taking the bus out of the county.

Groskreutz says many residents on the east side of the county go to Albert Lea or Mankato for medical appointments and other items.

The two commissioners say traveling out of the county has been discussed, but may not be practical because it would take a bus out of service in the county for several hours.

“Ideally we would need to work with other counties and meet at the county lines,” Loveall says.

Other ideas discussed on Monday were Sunday routes to take people to church, group rates, and bundled rides.

The county transportation committee is developing new policies for the bus service, and for drivers and passengers. Once all the policies are authorized by the full county board, they will be made available to county residents.

“We hope to have a brochure printed explaining all the new procedures,” Loveall says.