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Trailblazer Board looks at SMART ride program, city of Buffalo request

Rides in sparsely populated areas in Sibley County, a request by the city of Buffalo to provide evening-hour rides, and a dwindling pool of volunteer drivers will have Trailblazer Transit exploring new options for its SMART service.
The Trailblazer Joint Powers Board met Thursday morning in Buffalo, and reviewed its SMART (Sibley-McLeod Auxiliary Regional Transit) program’s origins. SMART, which does not qualify for Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) funding, helps provide rides outside of Trailblazer’s traditional service area (such as rides to medical facilities in St. Cloud or Rochester), and potentially outside of normal operating hours. The service is funded by user fees and local tax dollars.
In January, the Trailblazer board heard that the city of Buffalo would like the transit system to take over its evening service since it was having a hard time finding drivers. At that time, the board intended to use 2018 as a planning year with possible implementation of service in 2019.
However, since then, the board heard on Thursday, the city of Buffalo pressured Trailblazer to provide the service through its SMART ride service. Executive Director Gary Ludwig said the request fell within the typical guidelines of SMART service.
“They came to us and said, ‘we have a need, we have a desire and we have money,’” Ludwig said. He added the city’s service participation began to drop as Trailblazer’s service grew in the area.
With awarenesss of the board’s chair and vice chair, Trailblazer began offering the service.
But Ludwig said Trailblazer is hampered by the same issues that plagued the city — there is low demand for the service, and it is hard to find drivers and vehicles.
Running a regular bus is expensive for the low number of fares, and vans are not equipped with fare boxes, meaning rides would need to be billed.
Complicating the issue even further is that MnDOT and Trailblazer both are committed to expanding service in the service area overall before focusing on one area.
Sibley County Commissioner Jim Swanson was particularly disappointed that Trailblazer went ahead and started filling the service.
“I wish we had said ‘you need to wait,’” said Swanson, referring to the original desire to spend 2018 looking into the issue. Now, he said, it is difficult for Trailblazer to back out without looking like the “bad guys.”
For more, see the Feb. 21 print edition of The Chronicle.