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Mergers of Kandiyohi, Renville counties transit systems eyed

WILLMAR — The future of transit services in Kandiyohi and Renville counties could mean a merger of the county’s two separate systems.

With strong encouragement by the state, discussions are underway for the two counties to coordinate, cooperate and consolidate their transit systems as a means of providing better service for residents.

A merged system could also enhance chances for obtaining federal transit grants, said Bev Herfindahl, from the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s transit program.

Because of anticipated reductions in public transit funding, additional federal regulations and a focus on increasing efficiencies in operations, the Greater Minnesota Public Transit Investment Plan includes options for refining the current network of rural transit systems into one that may blur the border of county lines.

At their meeting Friday morning, the Kandiyohi Area Transit joint powers board expressed support strong for continuing talks with Renville County.

If the proposal advances, there would likely be a joint powers agreement between the two transit systems.

“There’s definitely a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Tiffany Collins, KAT transit director. Discussions are in the early stages but she said the two counties are “definitely moving in a direction that’s comfortable for both entities.”

Board member Dean Shuck said he was surprised the state wants counties to move so quickly on a potential match-up with neighboring transit systems.

Herfindahl said the program, called “Transit for our Future” has been discussed since 2011. But the timeline for submitting a joint contract for funding is less than a year away.

A statewide meeting was held recently in St. Cloud for representatives from different transit systems to hear details about potential benefits for merging.

The primary goal is to have a great level of access to public transit, Herfindal said.

Another benefit pertains to regulations regarding management of system that’s linked with funding.

Because most rural transit systems are small with part-time employees, they are unable to provide administration for required areas, Herfindah said.

Having merged systems would allow counties to coordinate and share operations and administrative duties and they could submit grant applications as one, larger system that could be beneficial when it comes to funding.

“Everyone across the state is hearing this same message,” she said.

Collins said there are potential benefits for communities by pairing up transit systems.

“It’ll be good when it’s all done,” said Herfindahl. “The transition is a little scary. But it’ll be good.”

“If we can provide better service for the same amount of dollars we’ll have hit a homerun,” said board member Jim Butterfield.

Shuck said a merged operations plan may eventually save money for both systems.

Herfindahl is lobbying to get a state grant that would fund a four-month study to to help Kandiyohi and Renville counties examine details about how to structure a merged system.

Meanwhile, Collins submitted a bid to Meeker County for managing the services for their transit system.

At least one other entity submitted a bid for the work, which could entail maintaining their buses, hiring drivers and overseeing operations of services.

It’s expected to take a couple weeks for Meeker County to make a decision.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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