River Rider transit program serving Wright County faces critical change

Those who use the River Rider transit program in Wright County are dependent on the program to get from one place to another.
While the program is open to everyone, the majority of the 70,000 riders in 2013 were the elderly or people with disabilities, providing the equivalent of a cab service using buses. As far as state-funded programs go, the River Rider program, which has served Wright and Sherburne counties for more than a decade, has been successful, despite not being heavily funded or widely advertised.
However, the program is in significant jeopardy.
The joint powers agreement for River Rider allowed either county to exercise a 180-day “out clause” to remove itself from the program.
Sherburne County exercised that option and, almost immediately, announced that it would join the Tri-Cap program that includes Stearns and Benton counties, leaving Wright County on its own.
In a quickly evolving situation, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the county are at odds over the future of River Rider.
MnDOT is planning to replace River Rider by absorbing Wright County into the Trailblazer Transit program that serves McLeod and Sibley counties.
“MnDOT is acting somewhere in between being bullies and being dictators,” Commissioner Charlie Borrell said. “What is bothersome is that MnDOT has it in their psyche is that the River Rider program is done and we need to be relocated.”
Borrell added: “Wright County represents two thirds of the ridership of the program, but any discussion of trying to run the program on our own has been rejected at face value.”
While Wright and Sherburne counties have many similarities in terms of population and transportation issues, Borrell sees little in common with the counties in the Trailblazer program. He sees it simply as MnDOT flexing its muscle to get what it wants done.
“MnDOT controls the purse strings,” Borrell said. “It provides 85 percent of the funding for the program. That’s what is the most difficult part for us. Sherburne County’s decision to get out and get into another regional transportation system (Tri-Cap) seems a little too orchestrated. Before we knew Sherburne County was planning on pulling out, they already had a plan in place to make the switch and, from the looks of things, prior approval from MnDOT. The people at MnDOT keep preaching the Three C’s – collaboration, cooperation and consolidation. But, money seems to be the biggest issue and spending money is the key to their line of thinking.”
Commissioner Mark Daleiden echoed that frustration, saying that, unlike county governments that belt-tighten and seek out ways to save money, the state operates from a completely different mindset.
“Last year, we turned back money,” Daleiden said. “The people from MnDOT were furious about that because the turned back money didn’t go to them. It went back to the state’s general fund. Their way of thinking goes against everything that government should be about. They want to spend every dollar they receive in their budgets. They don’t run their programs like a business. They run it from the perspective of job security. If you don’t spend all of your allotment in one year, how can you ask for more in the future? It’s completely backward from what government should be.”
Daleiden added that the River Rider program hasn’t invested in getting the word out that rides are available. It has been a program run cheaply (yet effectively), but has had more than its share of problems.
“When I first got on the board, I wanted to get some background information and River Rider didn’t even have a website,” Daleiden said. “That’s how the program was run – as cheaply as possible. It’s politics at its worst. They don’t want to leave any money on the table and the River Rider program was run inexpensively, which, in some ways, has been a bad thing.”
A meeting with MnDOT officials is scheduled following the Feb. 18 county board meeting. Borrell said he feels a bit betrayed by how the situation has unfolded, but remains hopeful something can be done to keep the River Rider program from simply fading into extinction.
“We got totally blindsided by this,” Borrell said. “Sherburne County and MnDOT did this behind our back. They had a deal in place with Stearns and Benton counties and had MnDOT’s approval to make the move before we even knew it was coming. The River Rider program has worked, but they seem bent on forcing us to go with Trailblazer, even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s like a dictatorship and our only options are to go along or quit altogether. Neither of those are good options.”
What is the future of the River Rider program? With the clock ticking down to the June 30 end date, it’s anyone’s guess.
“I have no idea where we will be July 1,” Daleiden said. “We’ve been told that those people needing rides July 1 will have rides. I’d like to see their plan. To date, we haven’t seen one, other than being told we’ll be shifted to Trailblazer and have a program based out of Glencoe. I’m not sure we will have any say at all in how things finally shake out.”

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.