City leaders heard an interesting transportation tale before approving a multi-year contract with A+ Taxi of Monticello for public transit services Monday night.
Lori Hauge, 1213 Hart Boulevard, addressed council members during the citizen comments portion of the meeting.
Hauge, a Mississippi Shores senior housing resident, asked a number of questions about the city’s transit situation. She wanted to know what the council and staff were doing about local bus service.
“I find it very difficult to accept the fact that we don’t have reliable public transportation in a city of this size,” Hauge said Monday night. “A+ Taxi is the only means of transportation we have right now, but for people who are on Social Security, that’s a pretty expensive thing”
Hauge said there were lots of things she wanted to be involved with in the community, but finding adequate transportation was a problem.
“It would be expedient for the city of Monticello to get some decent transportation for those of us who no longer drive,” Hauge said, adding she gave her license up nine years ago because of medical reasons.
“I didn’t feel I was safe on the road anymore,” she said. “It’s very inconvenient when you move to a place and you can’t go anywhere on the weekend unless you can find somebody who is a reliable driver, and you can’t participate in any evening events, I just you hope you are working on doing something.”
Hauge asked the council and city staff if it was possible to create a regular route that would stop every hour that would stop at certain locations.
“If you find that a stop is not being utilized, you find a way to make it work,”she said. “There are some people in my building who aren’t driving. I don’t want to ride with them. I think A+ Taxi is a wonderful company. They hire good people and have been very courteous and accommodating to me. I really appreciate that.”
Hauge said she would like to have transit service later than 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon and on weekends. “Maybe it could be a regular route. I hope you are working on it,” she said.
Hauge ended her citizen’s comment by stating that said had she walked to Monday night’s council meeting from her home at Mississippi Shores.
City Administrator Jeff O’Neill provided additional information about the A+ Taxi of Monticello in a background memo to council.
According to O’Neill, The formal name of the new transit operation has not been established, but at this time the service is being called The Monticello Shuttle.
“This specific request asking for approval of a contract with A+ Taxi is presented subsequent to additional discussion with Trailblazer and Tri-Cap representatives,” O’Neill wrote.
Leaders from both organizations indicated that the timing is not right for providing service to Monticello residents at this time, O’Neill stated.
City staff has been working solely with Hoglund Transportation to develop a contract starting Oct. 1, 2014, then extending thru 2015 and 2016.
Hoglund is asking for a two-year minimum contract because it will take two years of service to pay back the cost of the bus, O’Neill stated, adding a draft contract approved Monday had not been reviewed by City Attorney Joel Jamnik but is modeled after a similar contract with Hoglund Transportation that governed the Heartland Express in 2004.
“We got a great price [with A+ Taxi and Hoglund] at $40,000 a year,” O’Neill said. “We are getting 10 hours per day, with is four more hours than the original proposal and 52 weeks a year, minus a handful of holidays.”
Under the contract, O’Neill said all fare revenue would go to Hoglund Transportation and A+ Taxi.
“A bus has been ordered,” he said. “It’s ready to be installed with striping and lettering. I think operation could start as early as Oct. 1. The city will do what it can to promote the rides. We want to make sure we have a vehicle available and it gets used,” O’Neill said. “We are looking forward to getting this rolling. It’s been kind of a long haul to transition out of River Rider.
During discussion, Mayor Clint Herbst asked Joe Kounkel, A+ Taxi Of Monticello owner’s representative, if the Monticello-based transportation company had provided rides to Hauge in the past.
“We give her a lot of rides,” Kounkel said. Herbst asked Kounkel about the number of drivers being used.
“When you were looking at 10 hours a day of service, were you using two drivers at 5 hours each time? How were you breaking it out?” Herbst asked.
Kounkel said that the company would have one driver doing a 10-hour shift. “The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) allows us to do that,” Kounkel added.
Herbst suggested that if Monticello residents wanted to see expanded hours, they would need to support the new transit system by using it.
“You would get to a certain point, and you could justify adding another day,” he said. “Maybe that’s something you can toy and play with, because we want this to be successful, and that might mean expanding this service to Saturdays.”
Kounkel replied: “We almost copied the River Rider program. I get that people want to go to movies [at night], but there are matinees,” he said. “There are ride opportunities available from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and if with work with the city to get events during those times for seniors, maybe it will work for her,” he said.
Herbst said he was hopeful that if the community supported the new transit option in the future, something could be worked out. “It’s not a cheap venture for the city,” Herbst said.
Kounkel replied provide the service didn’t come cheap for A+ Taxi of Monticello and Hoglund Transportation, either.“We checked on the insurance for this bus the other day, and it’s $11,000 a year,” Kounkle said.
Councilmember Glen Posusta said that Hauge didn’t understand the cost of providing service.
“She mentioned something about having a specific route, and you just can’t do that in a city of this size,” Posusta said. “We don’t have bus stops where people are going to be waiting to go from Point A to Point B,” he added.
Kounkel suggested partnerships or transit options with different business in Monticello, namely, Walmart, Target, Cub Foods.
“For an hour, we could just make a loop [to those businesses],” Kounkel said. “But somehow, [potential passengers] still have to get to that loop, and unfortunately, some people can’t get out. We can’t do that for six or seven hours and make it pay.”
Kounkel said that Hauge was traveling by taxi during off hours. “That’s why it’s expensive for her.”
Herbst said the city could not run a 24-hour, seven-day transportation system. “You have to try and squeeze your needs into a 10-hour day. I don’t know how it’s working in the rest of Wright County, but I think we are pretty far ahead of the other cities that are transitioning over to Trailblazer Transit with an Oct. 1 deadline.”
Kounkel said his company was running taxis everyday, and subsidizing the cost until the new transit service was up and running. “I think sometimes taxis get a bad look [perception] about them, because it’s to haul Sober Cab type people.”
Posusta’s next comment made several of his fellow city council members turn their heads.
“You guys don’t have Muslim drivers like Minneapolis, do you?” Posusta asked Kounkel, who replied,“Unfortunately, at this point, we’ll take anybody who wants to drive as long as they can meet their qualifications.”
The Monticello Times contacted Posusta and Kounkel and asked them to clarify comments made during Monday’s meeting.
Kounkel said Tuesday that in general, finding drivers for his company was a difficult task. “It’s really tough right now,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to us if they are male, female, black, purple or white, we want people who are qualified to drive other people around.”
Posusta said he was making a general statement with his driver comment.
“A lot of taxi drivers in Minneapolis are Muslim,” he said, adding, “That’s all I meant. A lot of the drivers are Muslim, and that’s because of the country they are from.”
During Monday night’s discussion, Councilmember Brian Stumpf said he had received phones calls twice from the same woman in town who had concerns about just taxi service being provided.
“[Among] the things that she mentioned, said that the driver was not very professional.” Herbst then responded that Posusta’s comment wasn’t appropriate.
“Just so we are clear, the comment about the Muslim driver is not a good comment to make,” Herbst said.
Stumpf replied that his comments weren’t directed at that topic, nor Posusta’s comment. “I just told the woman that I would bring up her concerns, because we all get phone calls,” Stumpf said.
O’Neill said the new program would operate with city dollars and fare revenues.
“We want this to run as efficiently as we can, but that won’t stop us from going to organizations that are trying to do fundraising or trying to supplement service. We can do some other things to expand service,” O’Neill told the city council.
Posusta said the new transit option would be more efficient, because with Trailblazer Transit, prospective riders would have to call ahead two or three days.
Kounkel said that from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. the new bus would stay within the city limits of Monticello. O’Neill said the city was still working on a name for service.
Councilmember Tom Perrault wasn’t sold on the transit concept. He cast the lone vote against the contract.
“It’s an additional expense for the city,” he said. “We’ve been used to having this free with River Rider before. The city didn’t have to pay for it, because the state provided 85 percent of the funding.” he added.
Perrault also said he was concerned about the length of the contract. “A contract this long won’t provide an incentive [for us] to negotiate with Trailblazer.”
Kounkel replied: “We need a two-year contract to repay the bus. We have a big investment in this.”
Herbst and Posusta weren’t happy with Perrault’s position, suggesting he field complaints if service wasn’t provided. Stumpf made the initial motion to accept the A+ Taxi contract, with Councilmember Lloyd Hilgart seconding.
After the vote passed 4-1, Herbst said tongue-in-cheek, “Let the record show that Mr. Perrault is against old people. Perrault curtly replied: “Thank you.”
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