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Wright County News

Posted on: March 4, 2020

Trailblazer Ridership on the Rise

When Wright County joined Trailblazer Transit, it wasn’t by choice, it was by force. The State of Minnesota had mandated that funding for transit systems be regional, including multiple counties to create fewer, more uniform systems. For decades, Wright County had operated with Sherburne County in the River Rider program – a small transit system that consistently showed a modest profit.

But, when Sherburne County gave notice that it was leaving River Rider to join up with Stearns and Benton counties, it left Wright County as a transit island. Throughout the next few years, the relationship with Trailblazer was at times contentious about the level of representation Wright County would have in decision making. It led to Wright County walking away from it and forcing Wright County cities to step up and fill the transit void.

A lot has changed over the last three years. Wright County rejoined as a partner with Trailblazer in 2017 and has quickly become the primary user of the system it shares with Sibley and McLeod counties. Wright County accounts for approximately 50 percent of the ridership in the system and, as it has taken a foothold in Wright County communities, the program has grown quicker than many expected.

“We’re still relatively new to this process, but we saw some significant increases from 2018 to 2019,” Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch said. “We were expecting some growth, but nothing to that capacity. We knew when we put more buses on the roads that they would fill up quickly, but never to the point that you would see the growth we’ve seen in some communities.”

As a system, Trailblazer’s Wright County ridership grew 11.4 percent in 2019 over the previous year (122,800 rides in 2018 to 136,752 in 2019). By far, the largest ridership is in Buffalo (68,829 rides – more than three times that of the second highest total from Monticello of 20,111), but as the program has added more buses to its fleet, its reach has become more widespread and grown significantly in many communities.

Otsego saw a 2019 increase of 233.5 percent (790 rides in 2018 to 2,635). Cokato grew by 142.1 percent (from 6,250 rides to 15,130). Other cities saw a spike in ridership by percentage in 2019 as well, including Howard Lake (25.1 percent), Annandale (21.5 percent), Albertville (18.8 percent) and Maple Lake (18.8 percent). In 2019, rides provided to Wright County townships increased by 9.5 percent – from 10,191 in 2018 to 11,161 in 2019.

The numbers of missed rides has increased significantly (from 4,555 to 5,932), but Vetsch said each of those logged missed rides has its own story – from not having enough buses to meet demand during high volume times to ride requests having too tight a timeline to get a bus out to that area.

It’s a byproduct of the growth of the system and Vetsch said the goal moving forward is to expand the fleet of buses in the county to meet the growing demand.

“We’re not close to meeting the full ridership demands, but we’re making good progress,” Vetsch said. “We also saw growth in the rides we weren’t able to provide because we don’t have the bandwidth to handle all of the requests. Our goal is that, as we expand, not only will our ridership numbers go up, but the number of rides we weren’t able to meet will go down.”

Transportation transit systems aren’t expected to meet 100 percent of the need. The expectation from the Minnesota Department of Transportation is that a transit system reaches 80 to 90 percent of the local needs. Wright County is only at 40 percent of the need, but that is attributable to being a relatively new transit system in the county and the demonstrated need for more buses to be running – the county currently has 18 buses on the road while it should be closer to 30 to meet the needs of riders. McLeod County has a “mature transit system” that has been operating for decades and is meeting 85 to 90 percent of its ridership need. Vetsch said as Wright County gets more firmly entrenched in the Trailblazer system, its number will grow to that coverage level by the middle to end of the decade.

While only two months into 2020, the growth in ridership continues to be on an upward trajectory to providing the transit system its residents need and demand. Trailblazer Transit Executive Director Gary Ludwig said that, in the last three years, the addition of Wright County as a full-fledged partner has almost doubled the ridership numbers and all signs points to that continuing as more residents use Trailblazer as a transit alternative.

Ludwig has been around the transit business for a long time and said, given the county’s size and growing population, he isn’t shocked at the increase in ridership. If anything, he expects to grow bigger and faster.

“The numbers we have in Wright County are right on par for where I expected them to be,” Ludwig said. “I anticipate those numbers doubling again in the next three or four years as more people start using the system. The transit system is doing well and we expect it to continue its growth.”

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