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Merger of transit systems in Kandiyohi, Renville counties moves forward

WILLMAR –– A plan to merge the Kandiyohi County and Renville County transit systems into one entity by January 1 is moving ahead.

On Tuesday the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to support the concept of the merger.

The Willmar City Council took the same action earlier this month.

The city of Willmar and Kandiyohi County have a joint powers agreement to operate the independent Kandiyohi Area Transit system and Renville County operates the Heartland Express.

KAT has been working with Renville County for the last nine months on a merger plan in response to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s efforts to encourage transit systems to coordinate, consolidate and cooperate.

“It’s happening throughout the state,” said KAT transit director Tiffany Collins.

Last month a new bus route began going across county lines between Willmar and Litchfield and stops in between, and Collins said communication is continuing with Meeker County — as well as the western Minnesota counties that are part of the Prairie 5 transit system — on potential agreements.

Kandiyohi County Board Chairman Jim Butterfield said MnDOT has “strongly urged” transit systems to consolidate.

“It was just shy of ‘you will do this,’” said Butterfield, who complimented MnDOT’s support of the plan to merge KAT and Renville County’s transit systems.

“MnDOT has been very gracious,” said Butterfield, adding that he thinks the merger will enhance service in both counties.

Renville County is expected to take action on the resolution addressing the concept of the merger at its next board meeting, said Collins, adding that they have expressed concerns about making sure existing services are maintained there after the merger.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said he hopes the state isn’t so focused on consolidation that service is forgotten.

He said he wants to make sure “we’re not cutting off our nose to spite our face” and that the “voices of rural Minnesota are not being ignored and obliterated” when it comes to transit funding and service.

Collins said MnDOT expects merged transit entities to not only maintain existing public services but to provide a “higher level of service” because of expected savings.

Final language of the joint powers agreement is still being examined by attorneys from Kandiyohi County, Renville County, the city of Willmar, KAT and the League of Minnesota Cities.

Collins told the Kandiyohi County Commissioners on Tuesday that some “minor tweaks” were being made in the agreement’s details, but lawyers from the different entities were getting close to agreeing on the language.

Once the merger and agreement are given final approval, Collins said there is an application process that will go to the MnDOT office of transit for operational funding.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Dean Shuck said it’s important that the merger is a true “partnership.”

He said Renville County may be concerned that the larger KAT system will simply “absorb” the Renville County transit system.

“Renville County has been very good to work with,” said Shuck, adding that he thinks the merger will be beneficial for the region.

Collins said efforts are underway to come up with a new name for the merged transit system that is creative and not associated with Kandiyohi County, Renville County or Willmar.

In other transportation news, the commissioners were informed that KAT and the Kandiyohi County Safe Community Coalition are working together to establish a sober ride program on weekends.

Program Coordinator Stephanie Felt said three restaurants/bars in Spicer and at least two in Willmar have made commitments to provide funds for the program.

Felt said this type of service has been successful in other communities in preventing incidents of driving while impaired and fatal crashes.

Carolyn Lange

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

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