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Funding for TRAC bus to be cut

The TRAC bus program as it stands today in Hastings will likely become a thing of the past come 2010 under a Metropolitan Council plan to change how it funds local "dial-a-ride" programs.

Effective early next year, the Met Council is discontinuing $3.1 million in contracts it has with Hastings and 13 other communities who operate bus programs similar to TRAC.

According to a press release from the Met Council, the funds would be reallocated across the seven-county metro area based on a more equitable formula that considers factors such as population, size of the service area, and the transit-dependent and disabled populations in the portions of counties not served by regular Metro Transit buses.

That will mean for TRAC riders in Hastings there will still be some form of bus service in the city; however, it will likely be smaller in scope, more expensive for riders and without the ability to provide the specialized service TRAC provides today.

Those who have standing orders for weekly or daily rides on set schedules, however, may breathe a sigh of relief at the fact those trips will be grandfathered in 0to the new service, according to an April 23 letter to Mayor Paul Hicks from Thomas Weaver, a regional administrator at Met Council.

The Met Council currently subsidizes the TRAC program to the tune of about $250,000, or the majority of the approximately $400,000 it takes to operate TRAC buses annually. Without that subsidy, the program is too expensive for the city to continue on its own, Hastings Council Member Danna Elling Schultz said.

When you take a step back and look at the funding the city receives from the Met Council for the TRAC bus program, it's easier to see why the change is being made. According to Weaver's letter to Hicks, Hastings receives a disproportionate amount of money compared to other communities.

"The (Metropolitan) Council's annual per capita funding in Hastings is $11.58," Weaver wrote. "If the (Metropolitan) Council were to provide a comparable level of support to all residents in dial-a-ride eligible areas (where there are no fixed route buses like Metro Transit), the cost to the region would be nearly $10.8 million. The (Metropolitan) Council budget for dial-a-ride service in the seven-county area is $4.7 million. Our funding would need to more than double to provide the rest of the eligible areas with dial-a-ride service comparable to what Hastings receives today on a per capita basis."

The Met Council's plan is to take the reallocated money it frees up from discontinuing the 14 contracts it has with municipal dial-a-ride programs, and funnel it to counties who would decide if they want to take over the operation of the programs, or have the Met Council sub-contract them to private companies.

Dakota County's Physical Development Committee met on the topic May 12. Dakota County staff recommended to the committee that due to the uncertainty of the new program's design and its future funding, lack of administrative funding and lack of flexibility in providing the service, the county defer to the Met Council when it comes to management of the program. In other words, Dakota County isn't interested in implementing the changes the met council wants to see or taking over the operation of the bus service.

Over the past couple of months, the city has tried to stop Met Council's efforts to change how the funding is allocated, citing the high level of service TRAC provides the citizens of Hastings.

In 2008, the approximately 20 dial-a-ride programs the Met Council already operates in the metro area provided about 70,000 rides. In Hastings in 2008, TRAC buses provided almost 34,000 rides, a large number of which, about 12,500, were for senior citizens.

"You look at that metro-wide number, and we provided almost half that amount in Hastings (in 2008)," Elling Schultz said.

City Administrator Dave Osberg said the city has now turned its attention to making sure whatever program is implemented here is the best possible for Hastings.

The city still has some unanswered questions about the future structure of the bus program that will operate here. One is whether the city could keep the TRAC buses (which are owned by the Met Council) and continue to operate a modified program, or whether it can serve as the sub-contractor in Hastings when the funding is reallocated.

The other question that remains unanswered is what will happen to the three full-time, two part-time and one backup TRAC drivers the city employs. City staff has met with the drivers a couple times in the past few weeks to update them on the ongoing process.