Two public transit systems looking to merge

Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle The Timber Trails Public Transit bus parked next to the front entrance of Fairview Northland Medical Center the morning of April 10. Driver David Knosalla is heading toward the van after finding out that the person who was to board the bus did not appear as scheduled.

Joel Stottrup / Union-Eagle
The Timber Trails Public Transit bus parked next to the front entrance of Fairview Northland Medical Center the morning of April 10. Driver David Knosalla is heading toward the van after finding out that the person who was to board the bus did not appear as scheduled.

Area public transit agencies Timber Trails and Heartland Express are looking into merging as the two begin a move to have a shared upper administrative position.
The idea is to increase efficiency, said Helen Pieper, director of Timber Trails Public Transit.
Timber Trails is run by Kanabec County and provides public bus service for Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties.
Heartland Express, under a joint powers agreement between Chisago and Isanti counties, serves those two counties. Heartland also makes it into the city of Princeton for a limited time each weekday – once in the morning and once in the afternoon to drop off and pick up Elim Oasis adult day care clients.
The move to consolidate the upper-administrative services is driven by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which has long recognized that multiple transit systems can share the same upper management, Pieper said. MnDOT would prefer that instead of overseeing 67 public transit contracts across the state, it would only have to supervise 35 or 40, said Pieper, noting that the cost of administrating contracts is very costly.
A step toward merging
The Kanabec County Board of Commissioners recently took a step toward the merger goal by approving a memorandum of understanding with Heartland Express to apply for a “Transit for Our Future” state grant. It would be used to pay for a new compliance manager position that would be shared by both Heartland Express and Timber Trails. If the grant is approved, the implementation could take place this June.
“A compliance manager would be responsible for researching, writing and reviewing all of our regulatory policies and procedures and assisting the transit directors in implementation and reporting,” Pieper said. “Compliance is a tremendous responsibility. Our funding depends on us making sure that we are doing all the things that a number of regulatory agencies require. It just makes sense that our two agencies do this together.
Pieper noted that Timber Trails and Heartland Express would still each have an operations manager.
Heartland Express and Timber Trails have already done some collaborating. Heartland Express took over most of the maintenance work for both of the public transit organizations about two years ago. It has a full-time mechanic handling the work at a location in Cambridge.
Pieper said that after Timber Trails and Heartland Express found the cooperative maintenance working so well, the two collaborated in a technology project. Each bought the same new dispatch software and then worked with the software systems developer to implement it by training the dispatchers at both places together.
“This saved money on training and gave our staff a chance to work together and learn from each other,” Pieper said.
Pieper emphasized that the move for a merger is preliminary, asking: “Will our two agencies get to the point of consolidating?
“It’s something that we are exploring. There are a lot of things that will need to come together to make that happen. We have the same goals – to serve our communities. We have the same challenges – regulation and reporting, funding and an increasing need for transportation. I believe that we’ll keep working together. We’ll take it one step at a time.”

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