Transportation council serving Willmar, surrounding area works to create a system open to all
The Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council is working with Willmar area partners to create a transportation system, both public and private, that is equal and available to all.
WILLMAR — Public transportation isn't just buses. It can also be bikes, trains and cars.
And the road network isn't just for those who own a car, truck or van but for all who need to get from one place to another. In an effort to create a more equal transportation network, the Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council is working with area partners to try and fill gaps in that network.
"We want to make sure everything is equal. Equity becomes a big component of what we do," said Terry Smith, Mid-Minnesota Development Commission regional transportation coordinator. "So everyone has a voice and can be on the road. It shouldn't matter if you use public transportation or have your own car or use a program where a driver comes to pick you up."
The regional transportation coordinating councils , of which there are 12 across the state, were created by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Department of Human Services, along with other state agencies. Their mission is to help create and coordinate efficient transportation networks and improve mobility for those considered transportation-disadvantaged throughout Minnesota. The Mid-Minnesota Development Commission took on the responsibility to act as the host for this region's council, covering Kandiyohi, Renville, Meeker and McLeod counties.
"We are evaluating transit systems and making some changes," Smith said. "Making access for all people. We all pay taxes for our roads, we should all be able to use them."
The Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council works with both the public and private transportation sectors in its region. A major partner in its work is Central Community Transit , the public bus service that covers Renville, Kandiyohi and Meeker counties.
"We work together to learn what transportation gaps there are in the community, in the region. We try to develop different options to make sure those gaps are covered the best we can," said Tiffany Collins, Central Community Transit director.
During the past two years, due to the pandemic and workforce shortages, the biggest issue facing the transit system is drivers, both for its fleet of buses and its volunteer driving program.
"We don't have enough drivers or can't cover the service area being asked of us," Collins said. "We are spread too thin."
Currently, Central Community Transit has 40 volunteer drivers available to take people to medical appointments, stores and even to the Twin Cities or St. Cloud. As the pandemic has worn on, the system continues to see a big need for volunteer drivers.
"There were three rides (on a recent Friday) I said I could not do, and they were all long-distance," said Jennifer Seubert, volunteer driver coordinator. "We did not have enough drivers; I had every driver on the road."
The drivers volunteer their time and vehicles while being reimbursed for the mileage they travel. Volunteer drivers must have a good driving record, own and maintain their own vehicle and have insurance.
"It is a way someone can step up and serve their community," Smith said. "To help seniors, people with disabilities stay in their own homes."
For its bus routes, Central Community Transit wants to hire more drivers so that it can add back routes it had stopped providing.
"We have a great crew. They are working extra hard, doing what they can. We need more," Collins said.
The Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council is helping the local transit system recruit drivers through videos, advertising campaigns and meeting with community, service and other groups. The hope is to not only educate and inform the populace about the available transportation programs but also to find people interested in being a driver. The regional transit councils also lobbied to make changes to the law to make it easier for volunteer drivers to participate in such programs.
"It is really important to have good, stable transportation providers, so we can help people get to all those services," Collins said.
There are various other transportation gaps in the area that the Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council, Central Community Transit and its other partners hope to fix. This includes the need for more medical drivers who have the equipment to provide rides for those in wheelchairs, a daily shuttle to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and more ways for people to get rides in the evenings and weekends.
"We pick up those gaps," Seubert said, but it can be a stretch. "We are picking up all that slack, things the county can't do or the nursing homes can't do."
All the hard work the council and its partners are putting in is helping create a better transportation system for residents and the work will continue going forward. It might not happen tomorrow, but it is happening. And every new driver that is recruited or ride that is taken is one more step toward that reality.
"We are working towards improving the system for all people," Collins said.