WILLMAR -- Preserving the state's existing transit system is the top goal listed in a proposed Greater Minnesota Transit Investment Plan.
The plan was the subject of a statewide public hearing Wednesday that was conducted through a live video conference between all the Minnesota Department of Transportation district head-quarters, including the District 8 office located in Willmar.
The public hearing was also made available to the public through home computer connections.
The investment plan, which was conducted at the request of the Legislature, looks at needs of riders in Greater Minnesota communities and how those needs could be best met and at what cost.
The goal to "preserve each system at a level sufficient to continue the current level of service in the future" could be more difficult than it sounds considering the state's budget woes.
Transit systems, like the Kandiyohi Area Transit system based in Willmar, operate with money that comes from the state's general fund.
With a $6 billion projected state deficit, preserving existing programs and hours of operation may be difficult.
That's why the plan also includes areas that would be cut first in the systems if state funds are reduced for transit. "It's the fiscal reality we have to deal with," said Patrick Weidemann, planning director for the MnDOT District 8 office in Willmar.
Weidemann was a member of the project management team that worked on the plan.
If cuts have to be made, expansions would be the first on the chopping block, followed by existing systems that are not functioning as efficiently as others.
If there are additional funds dedicated to transit, the plan includes a list of priorities in that area, including expanding transit services to Greater Minnesota communities that currently do not have a transit system.
Weidemann said the plan "won't be whatever everybody wants."
He said many communities, especially in urban centers like St. Cloud, would like to expand transit services to address unmet needs. He said it may not be the "right time" for that, considering funding shortfalls.
Under the draft plan, Weidemann said MnDOT "will not expand one (transit system) at the expense of the other."
But he said the plan does include a system of checking performance standards of similar-sized transit system to make sure they are operating at the greatest efficiencies.
Lower performing systems will not be financially penalized, he said, but efforts will be made to make them more efficient.
Given the economic climate in the state, he said, transit systems "will want to get as efficient as possible."
During the interactive public hearing there were a handful of comments made regarding the continued need for transit services.
Public comments can be submitted until Monday. Input will be reviewed and incorporated into the final plan that will be sent to MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel for approval. It will then be forwarded to the Legislature. It's expected to be completed by Jan. 31.
For more information about the plan go to www.dot.state.mn.us/transit/transitplan/