WILLMAR - Back in the day - like two weeks ago - drivers for the Kandiyohi Area Transit system would get a paper schedule with the day's riders before heading out on their routes. While pulled over during a pickup, they would take calls from dispatch about new ride requests or cancelled rides and jot the addresses and times down on the schedule.
It had some interesting results with drivers mistaking "Sixth Street" for "Fifth Street" during crackly phone calls, and dispatchers were not sure exactly where drivers were at and who was handiest to pick up a new last-minute rider.
Now KAT drivers have up-to-the-minute schedules at their fingertips with new computer tablets that are installed near the dashboard.
A distinctive-sounding "ding" alerts the drivers that dispatchers have changed their schedule and have provided clearly written addresses and names of riders.
"It's nice," said Gene Floren, who has driven bus for KAT for 14 years. He's still learning a few tricks with the system, but Floren said he likes the "instant updates" that help make his job easier.
Not only do the on-board tablets make it easier for drivers to see schedules and use online maps to find unfamiliar addresses, the new software also lets dispatchers use the tablet's GPS to track buses.
The system recommends which bus is closest to pick up a new rider and the driver is sent an additional assignment, said KAT Transit Director Tiffany Collins.
The system also tracks billing, riders and other statistics that can be used to generate useful reports, she said.
It has also allowed KAT to create a database of riders that's especially helpful to track addresses and billing methods for repeat customers. That information is automatically available to dispatchers when a customer calls to request a ride.
KAT teamed up with Renville County's transit system to purchase the new equipment and software together through a joint bid with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said Collins.
The cooperative project made it easier to get funding to bring new technology to rural Minnesota transit systems, she said.
The new equipment was installed this week in the Renville County buses.
Collins told the KAT joint powers board Friday morning that usually transit systems continue using the paper schedules while making a gradual transition to computer tablets. But she said the KAT drivers were trained and began using the tablets on-board immediately.
"We jumped in with both feet," said Collins, adding that the staff has adapted quickly to the new technology. "It's been a good transition."
Meanwhile, Collins said rural transit systems are struggling to get an increase in state funding through MnDOT to purchase new buses. Because of flat funding over the last seven to eight years, the buying power has been cut in half in terms of the amount of funds for purchasing buses in rural Minnesota.
MnDOT will be meeting with representatives from rural transit systems May 21 in Glencoe to listen to their concerns, said Collins. On Friday the board agreed to purchase a new bus for $128,778. Because MnDOT is providing $92,000 for the purchase, the city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County are each contributing $13,000 and KAT will use $10,778 in reserves to make up the shortfall.
There's concern that if state transit funding does not increase for rural Minnesota, that counties and small cities will have to provide a greater percentage of the cost of purchasing new buses.