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Regionalization of county transit systems up for discussion

In this undated photo, Kandiyohi Area Transit driver Gary Manzer makes stops along his route in Willmar as another KAT bus passes. Tribune photo

WILLMAR -- An effort to provide the same services while spending fewer state tax dollars is prompting the Kandiyohi Area Transit system to begin talks with area counties about cooperating, coordinating and consolidating.

The potential regionalization of county transit systems is being encouraged by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said Tiffany Collins, KAT transit director.

On Friday she told the joint powers board, which includes members of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners and Willmar City Council, that area transit directors have been meeting and talking about ways to share services across the county lines.

Given the "territorial" nature of transit systems, Collins said making adaptations could be challenging but will be necessary as state and local governments strive to become more efficient.

"We have to keep an open mind," Collins said.

Although the directive from MnDOT came because of anticipated revenue reductions that didn't materialize, Collins said efforts to become more efficient by regionalizing transit programs could help serve riders better in the long run.

"We have to pursue this," County Commissioner Jim Butterfield said.

Pairing with other government entities to share duties and services is becoming a trend in Minnesota. Kandiyohi County provides law enforcement dispatching for Big Stone County and just this week Kandiyohi and Renville Counties agreed to merge their public health boards.

One of the options KAT is considering includes sharing new computer software that allows dispatchers to track where buses are in their routes and provides drivers with computer tablets to communicate back to the dispatch center.

The $100,000 system also includes a system to track riders and billing, which Collins said would save time by moving away from the "chicken scratch" on paper method that KAT uses now.

Several neighboring transit systems already use this computerized dispatching program.

After receiving the blessing of the joint powers board, KAT is considering joining a consortium to purchase the program, which could save KAT about $5,000.

If the software purchase is approved, KAT would have to provide 20 percent of the cost. The state would pay for the rest.

"It's a very big expense but I think the benefits will be very good for KAT," said Collins.

Other options include coordinating bus rides with different transit systems.

Collins said it doesn't make sense to send a KAT bus west on U.S. Highway 12 to Pennock to pick up a rider when a bus from the Prairie Five Rides is coming east on Highway 12 to Willmar with passengers from Benson.

With the new software program, dispatchers would be able to see that a bus will be driving right by Pennock and could direct the driver to pick up the passenger in Pennock.

The program could also allow dispatching to take place from one centralized location for several counties.

Because each transit system operates with the help of state MnDOT grants, reducing costs by sharing buildings, services and key employees makes sense, Collins said.

In other action:

- The board discussed results of a survey that questioned riders on KAT services. The information will be used to refine services that are offered.

- The final audit for 2010 and 2011 was presented, which showed a net profit of about $11,000, net assets of $1.4 million and cash reserves of $513,200.

- The city and county representatives were informed that both entities would be asked to contribute $13,000 to KAT in 2013. This year each entity contributed 49,000 and in 2010 they did not contribute anything.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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