Transport board serving Willmar and surrounding areas is working to create an open system for everyone – West Central Tribune
WILLMAR — Public transport isn’t just buses. It can also be bicycles, trains and cars.
And the road network is not just for those who own a car, truck or van, but for anyone who needs to get from place to place. In an effort to create a more equal transportation network, the Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council is working with partners in the region to try to fill the gaps in this network.
“We want to make sure everything is equal. Equity is becoming an important component of what we do,” said Terry Smith, regional transportation coordinator for the Mid-Minnesota Development Commission. “So everyone has a voice and can be on the road. It doesn’t matter if you use public transport or have your own car or use a program where a driver picks you up.”
Regional Transportation Coordinating Councils, 12 statewide, were created by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Department of Human Services, along with other state agencies. Their mission is to help create and coordinate efficient transportation networks and improve the mobility of people considered transportation disadvantaged throughout Minnesota. The Mid-Minnesota Development Commission assumed responsibility for hosting the council for this region, covering Kandiyohi, Renville, Meeker, and McLeod counties.
“We are evaluating transit systems and making some changes,” Smith said. “Make access accessible to all. We all pay taxes for our roads, we should all be able to use them.
The Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council works with the public and private transportation sectors in its region. A major partner in its work is Central Community Transit, the public bus service that covers Renville, Kandiyohi and Meeker counties.
“We are working together to find out what the transportation gaps are in the community, in the region. We are trying to develop different options to make sure these gaps are filled as best we can,” said Tiffany Collins, director of Central Community Transit.
Over the past two years, due to the pandemic and labor shortages, the biggest issue facing the transit system has been drivers, both for its bus fleet and for its volunteer driving program.
“We don’t have enough drivers or we can’t cover the service area that’s requested of us,” Collins said. “We are too spread out.”
Currently, Central Community Transit has 40 volunteer drivers available to take people to medical appointments, shopping, and even the Twin Cities or St. Cloud. As the pandemic has continued, the system continues to see a great need for volunteer drivers.
“There were three rides (on a recent Friday) that I said I couldn’t do, and they were all long distance,” said Jennifer Seubert, volunteer driver coordinator. “We didn’t have enough drivers, I had all the drivers on the road.”
The drivers volunteer their time and their vehicles while being reimbursed for the mileage they cover. Volunteer drivers must have a good driving record, own and maintain their own vehicle and have insurance.
“It’s a way for someone to step up and serve their community,” Smith said. “To help the elderly, people with disabilities stay at home.”
For its bus lines, Central Community Transit wants to hire more drivers so that it can add lines that it had stopped providing.
“We have a great team. They work really hard, do what they can. We need more,” Collins said.
The Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council helps the local transit system recruit drivers through videos, ad campaigns, and meetings with community, departments, and other groups. The hope is not only to educate and inform the population about the transportation programs available, but also to find people interested in becoming drivers. Regional transportation boards have also lobbied for changes to the law to make it easier for volunteer drivers to participate in these programs.
“It’s really important to have good, stable transportation providers, so we can help people access all of these services,” Collins said.
There are various other transportation gaps in the region that the Mid-Minnesota Regional Transportation Coordinating Council, Central Community Transit and its other partners hope to fill. This includes the need for more medical drivers with the necessary equipment to transport people in wheelchairs, a daily shuttle to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and more ways for people to get around in the evenings and on weekends.
“We fill in those gaps,” Seubert said, but that may be overkill. “We’re taking all that slack, things the county can’t do or the nursing homes can’t do.”
All of the hard work of the council and its partners is helping to create a better transportation system for residents and the work will continue. It may not happen tomorrow, but it is happening. And each new driver that is recruited or each journey made is one step closer to this reality.
“We’re working to make the system better for everyone,” Collins said.