Last week, Trailblazer Transit held a ribbon-cutting for the garage expansion at its Buffalo facility. Seven years in the system, Wright County has become the largest user of the Trailblazer system and that growth is expected to continue as more bus routes become available.
Trailblazer started in Sibley County in 1997 and became a regional transit system in 1999. Wright County joined as a member in 2014. The current plan from the Minnesota Department of Transportation is to expand the fleet of buses to 36 buses in Wright over the next five to 10 years. But, much of the planning was forced to be put on hold when the COVID-pandemic hit.
Currently there are 14 Trailblazer buses in service out of the Buffalo garage. Under the estimates pre-COVID-19, Wright County should have had up to 23 buses on the road. However, like with many other aspects of daily life, COVID screeched the brakes on the transit business as it did to so many other businesses.
“We got crushed by COVID,” Trailblazer Executive Director Gary Ludwig said. “The ridership was down 90 percent at one point. At this point, we’re still down about 30 percent of where we were before COVID. It will probably be about a year from now to get back to pre-COVID ridership levels.”
While Trailblazer is equipped to meet the current demands of ridership, the biggest issue it is facing now is getting enough drivers. There was a driver shortage nationwide before the pandemic and it has been worsened because of COVID-19. Trailblazer drivers are professional commercial grade drivers that need a Commercial Driver’s License to operate a bus. In response to attract more hourly employees, the Trailblazer Board approved a $2.50 hourly wage adjustment.
Ludwig said as Trailblazer looks forward to returning to normal ridership levels and eventually taking on a greater transit role in Wright County, leaving COVID in the rearview mirror is Step One in that process.
“We’re hopeful that we’re on the backside of all this,” Ludwig said. “For a year, all we’ve heard is COVID, COVID, COVID. We’re looking forward to getting back to providing the transit needs to the people in our area and get back to doing what we were doing before this all began.”