Transit loop between Hastings and county transit hubs leave commissioners divided
Dakota County commissioners couldn't agree on the scope and funding for a pilot transit program to transport people to and from the Hastings court and jail at a meeting on Tuesday.
The six-month pilot program aimed to solve a long-running problem for the county — how people who are due for court and jail get in and out of transit-barren Hastings. It proposed partnering with Hastings Bus Company to create a three-trip-a-day loop between Hastings and two transit hubs — Signal Hills Shopping Center's transit center in West St. Paul and Cedar Grove Station in Eagan.
"Transportation is both needed from Hastings and needed to Hastings," said Brian Kopperud, Dakota County community corrections director, at the July 9 County Board meeting. "It's a source of frustration not only for them, but for the courts."
Kopperud, and other community corrections staffers felt they had a way to sweeten their pilot proposal too — open the loop to the general public for free. At the meeting, though, most of the county commissioners balked at the prospect of offering the service, which was estimated to cost about $60,000 to operate across the proposed six-month pilot, for free.
"My point is that, first of all we say 'free.' It's not a free ride, it would be a taxpayer-funded shuttle," said Mary Liz Holberg, District 6 commissioner. "When you say you would open up to the public, when they use this, there would be no reimbursement to Dakota County."
Kopperud responded by saying that offering the loop to the public made sense if they were going to fund the service.
"Why would we limit to just those coming to the courts, etc? When we could open it up to our citizens on a larger scale," he said.
Mike Slavik, District 1 commissioner, was uncomfortable with the free public aspect of the plan, but thought it was likely Hastings residents would be willing to pay to use the service. He posed the idea of partnering with the city of Hastings for funding the project.
"I think you would see residents of Hastings go in and pay ... [but] I think offering a free service was not what we were expecting," Slavik said.
However, setting up payments for the pilot's loop was unpopular with county community service workers, who said it would require setting up a system and be too cumbersome.
"I would say this, for us to be able to ever try and charge and collect would be a non possibility," Kopperud said after the meeting.
Dakota County Community Services Director Kelly Harder said at the meeting that they would be open to operating the pilot without the public component.
The pilot's proposed funding was through the county's 0.25% transit tax, but that split commissioners as well. Slavik raised concerns on whether the pilot would be eligible for that tax without the public portion.
"When you take off the public aspect that's when it may be removed from the equation somewhat," he said.
Despite pushback from some commissioners, several board members were in outright support.
District 4 Commissioner Joe Atkins said he never thought that finding a transportation solution for the court and jail population could be open to the public and that he would be open to the public aspect to see how ridership would be.
"I'm so darned impressed," he said. "It never dawned on me at the prospects of letting other people ride."
The proposed pilot is a follow up from a previous jail-only transportation pilot that ended in March and identified a need for transportation that encompasses the Hastings courts, in addition to jails.
That pilot relied on Transit Link and Smart Ride transportation services, but continuing that partnership was found to be too expensive and rigid for the county.
The proposed Hastings Bus Company pilot would run the loop three times a day, with starts at 7 and 11 a.m. as well as 5:30 p.m and return to Hastings about 1 hour and 40 minutes after departure.
Kopperud said after the meeting that it's likely the pilot moves forward as jail and court only, without the public option, and further looking into funding sources.