BRAINERD — Fare increases or service reductions could be in the future for users of the countywide transit system.
Crow Wing County Commissioners last month discussed options to cover a planned $24,359 increase from county transit Brainerd & Crow Wing, which provides Dial-a-Ride service and lines of regular buses.
With no increase in revenue or decrease in costs, an increase in property taxes spent on transit would be within reach, County Administrator Tim Houle told council during its Jan. 18 committee of the whole.
“It’s either you increase revenue to make up the difference, or you cut expenses to make up the difference,” Houle said. “…It would probably be a combination of increasing fares, but I would also suggest reducing and eliminating routes that also don’t have decent ridership.”
The transit system serves the towns of Brainerd, Baxter, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point, Crosby, Ironton, and Deerwood, as well as communities along state highway corridors leading to these locations. The town of Pine River in Cass County also provides service under the system.
One of the routes under review for low ridership is Breezy Point, which has service three days a week but can see as few as one to three passengers per trip, Houle said. A November 2021 memo written by Transit Coordinator Andy Stone recommended changes to this route, noting that reducing service by one day would reduce county spending by about 7%.
“It has very low attendance,” Stone wrote. “Removing this expense would go a long way to recovering the additional cost of transit service.”
The local cost share increases are the result of Brainerd City Council’s decision in 2021 to award the transit contract to new Blue Earth provider Blue Sky, which was a jump of approximately $464,000 per year compared to previous provider Productive Alternatives. Minneapolis-based Blue Earth Blue Sky submitted the most expensive bid from two companies vying for the contract — $3.59 million over three years — edging out Baxter’s Reichert bus service.
City officials and committee members who supported the Blue Earth Blue Sky proposal pointed to expected improvements in service and higher wages for drivers as key reasons for the selection.
In a typical year, state and federal funding covers 85% of operating costs, with Brainerd, Baxter, Pine River and Crow Wing County providing the remaining 15%. Brainerd pays the largest share of the remainder of the cost at 46%, followed by Crow Wing County at 35%, Baxter at 12%, and Pine River at 7%.
The money each entity collects in tariffs serves its part of the contract. Rides outside the city limits of Brainerd and Baxter are $4 each way and county Dial-A-Ride service in Crosby and Pequot Lakes is $2.25 each way.
Since 2020, coronavirus relief funds have covered 100% of public transit costs, but Houle said there was a need to plan for a future when those dollars weren’t flowing.
“I don’t think it’s time-critical. I don’t think it’s going to hit us immediately,” Houle said. “But I think at some point the state is going to stop doing that, so we should be ready.”
While the pandemic means an increase in state and federal funding, it has also resulted in a dramatic drop in ridership in each of the past two years. A total of 9,314 rides were operated in the county’s service area in 2020, down 40% from the previous year. Ridership in 2021 seemed on track to pick up as Stone prepared his memo.
But even before COVID-19, ridership between 2016 and 2019 declined each year, with Stone attributing those declines to falling gas prices at the time, prompting people to choose driving over driving.
His analysis predicted ridership would continue to rise, but likely not at the 18% monthly clip seen in 2021. At a more modest projection of 4%, Stone said ridership would return to the 2016-19 average d ‘by October of this year, at which time the county would break even under the previous contract. To cover the difference of $24,359, however, would require fare revenue from another 6,360 passengers each year.
Speaker Doug Houge asked if the county should ask other communities served by the transit system to contribute.
“It appears to benefit the communities of Crosby and Pequot. Maybe we throw that away and see what kind of response we get,” Houge said.
The Crosby and Pequot lake routes are self-contained, meaning the fares collected cover the costs of providing transportation services. A significant portion of the people who travel by bus in these communities are students from St. Francis of the Lakes Catholic School in Brainerd.
Houle suggested starting with communities with loss-making routes to seek partners and gauge the value placed on transit service there.
Commissioners Bill Brekken, Steve Barrows and Rosemary Franzen all asked questions or made comments about the more expensive contract and whether the state had a say in vendor selection. Commissioner Paul Koering said he would not support any proposal that included an increase in levies.
“The only thing I would argue is if it’s a no-take deal,” Koering said. “…Raise the fare to make sure we’re not going to charge dollars for it, because it’s not mandatory. We’re not obligated to provide transit.
“For me, if it starts to be a huge amount to provide public transit, I say get rid of it. Otherwise, mount the ticket box. Even a $5 ride—$5? I mean, come on, it’s nothing. Here is where I am on this.
The following week, at the regular council meeting on Jan. 25, commissioners heard from Jeff Czeczok, who chairs the transportation advisory committee, in an open forum. Czeczok explained that the selection of Blue Earth Blue Sky was a local decision, with the MnDOT playing no role other than providing funding. He noted that when Reichert operated the system four to six years ago, he sometimes removed drivers from the Dial-A-Ride service to drive school buses, which meant he was not fulfilling the contract.
“We want better service, which in turn creates more traffic,” Czeczok said. “People are happier.”
Czeczok said he did not hear commissioners discuss increasing ridership as a solution to the funding shortfall, noting he believed Stone was already financially responsible and working to make the service as efficient as possible.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, I’ll never need to use public transit.’ I said the same thing. …And then one day I was using this and I was like, ‘Well, how am I going to get around?’ said Czeczok, who went blind three decades ago at age 26, while raising his cane. “And I would like you to think of all the people who ride who absolutely depend on it. It gives them independence. They go to work. They can go shopping, which helps our businesses.
Houle said Wednesday, Feb. 9, that the board likely won’t make a decision until September at the earliest, when the transit contract with St. Francis School is up and ridership is further stabilized.
Community Editor CHELSEY PERKINS can be reached at 218-855-5874 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at