Wright County’s River Rider program in jeopardy


For those who use the River Rider transit program in Wright County, many of them are dependent on the program to get from one place to another. While the program is open to everyone, the majority of the 70,000 riders in 2013 were the elderly or people with disabilities, providing the equivalent of a cab service using buses. As far as state-funded programs go, the River Rider program, which has served Wright and Sherburne counties for more than a decade, has been successful, despite not being heavily funded or widely advertised.
However, the program is in significant jeopardy. The joint powers agreement for River Rider allowed either county to exercise a 180-day "out clause" to remove itself from the program. Sherburne County exercised that option and, almost immediately, announced that it would join the Tri-Cap program that includes Stearns and Benton counties, leaving Wright County on its own. In a quickly evolving situation, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the county are at odds over the future of River Rider. MnDOT is planning to replace River Rider by absorbing Wright County into the Trailblazer Transit program that serves McLeod and Sibley counties.
"MnDOT is acting somewhere in between being bullies and being dictators," Commissioner Charlie Borrell said. "What is bothersome is that MnDOT has it in their psyche that the River Rider program is done and we need to be relocated. Wright County represents two-thirds of the ridership of the program, but any discussion of trying to run the program on our own has been rejected at face value."
While Wright and Sherburne counties have many similarities in terms of population and transportation issues, Borrell sees little in common with the counties in the Trailblazer program. He sees it simply as MnDOT flexing its muscle to get what it wants done.
"MnDOT controls the purse strings," Borrell said. "It provides 85 percent of the funding for the program. That's what is the most difficult part for us. Sherburne County's decision to get out and get into another regional transportation system (Tri-Cap) seems a little too orchestrated. Before we knew Sherburne County was planning on pulling out, they already had a plan in place to make the switch and, from the looks of things, prior approval from MnDOT. The people at MnDOT keep preaching the Three C's – collaboration, cooperation and consolidation. But, money seems to be the biggest issue and spending money is the key to their line of thinking."
More information appears in this week's Messenger.