A little less than 10 years ago, Wright County was at acrossroads when it came to public transit. The county had a bus service called River Rider that it shared with Sherburne County. But, when Sherburne County unilaterally decided to pull out of River Rider to join with Stearns and Benton counties, Wright County was left with a public transit crisis. The State of Minnesota didn’t want stand-alone transit systems in individual counties.
The decision was made to join up with Trailblazer Transit, a system based in Glencoe that was already serving Sibley and McLeod counties. While far from an easy process – the switchover was contentious and, at one point, the county completely backed out of joining Trailblazer and a coalition of Wright County cities were forced to pick up the ball for a brief time.
However, once Wright County came fully on board, it has become the largest user by far of the Trailblazer system and the ridership has experienced steady growth prior to COVID-19 changing how business as usual was done.
On Thursday, (Sept. 17), there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion of the Trailblazer facility outside of Buffalo. Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who was converted into being a believer in what Trailblazer had to offer residents of Wright County, said that having a robust transit system has benefits in all Wright County communities.
“This project addresses the desire and demand for citizens in Wright, Sibley and McLeod counties to be able to move about their community as needed,” Vetsch said. “The mobility that Trailblazer provides keeps thousands of people in their homes and out of care facilities, employed where otherwise not possible and healthy through access to medical treatment.”
Trailblazer Executive Director Gary Ludwig added that the demand in Wright County has grown to the extent that an expansion of the Buffalo facility was needed as the system continues to grow and add more buses to its fleet.
“This gives us the capacity to put more buses out on the road,” Ludwig said. “Buffalo is the central hub for all activity in Wright County and this expansion will allow us to do more for the residents of the county.”
The embracing of Trailblazer didn’t come easy. There were many contentious meetings in which Wright County officials didn’t feel they were getting a fair deal as the new member of Trailblazer. But, the reality of the situation was that the River Rider system was not equipped to handle the demand of a transit system in a growth county like Wright County.
Commissioner Mike Potter said that the partnership between Wright, Sibley and McLeod counties has had a mutual benefit, especially for Wright County as its largest user of the system.
“The truth of the matter is that River Rider served a purpose many years ago that Wright County simply outgrew,” Potter said. “We learned over the years that the demand was there, but we needed a system that could meet the demands of our people and not just be a shuttle service for a small number of residents in Wright County. As Trailblazer has grown and more people have taken advantage of having a cost-effective form of transit, it has continued to grow and improve to meet our needs.”
Likewise, Ludwig acknowledged that Trailblazer could benefit by expanding in Wright County. While the transit system provided the services needed for McLeod and Sibley County, Wright County’s inclusion allowed the system to grow markedly because of the county’s proximity to the Twin Cities and its continued, sustained growth.
“We did our analysis before we decided to come into Wright County,” Ludwig said. “We knew it was dramatically underserved. When we first started in 2014, we estimated that we would eventually need 28 to 30 buses. Last year, we had a national consultant come in and they said our projection was spot on – they said up to 32 buses based on today’s population. We have 22 now and we have a plan to get up to that goal number in five years. Obviously, there will be more demand because Wright County is a very healthy, thriving community. We expect to be doing more than 300,000 rides a year in the near future.”
It’s hard to believe now just how close Wright County and Trailblazer came from not being in a partnership. There was animosity on both sides early on – some Wright County commissioners didn’t want Trailblazer in the county and, given the pushback, Ludwig said Trailblazer wasn’t sure it wanted to expand into the county.
However, once cooler heads prevailed, Trailblazer has been a boon to Wright County and having the county as its largest member has made Trailblazer a more viable transit system.
It hasn’t come easily, but the end result has been what has mattered and a lot of people have had to work together to accomplish the goals both Wright County and Trailblazer had coming in when they teamed up in 2014.
“The dedicated staff of this organization have worked tirelessly through many challenges as this organization learned to crawl, than walk and now run,” Vetsch said. “This expansion is an investment in the great staff and clients of Trailblazer to allow them to run forward in keeping people moving in our region.”