In an effort to better meet the transit needs of those in the lakes area, the Brainerd City Council reviewed a five-year transit system plan and discussed its vision moving forward during a council meeting Monday, Aug. 19.

The plan development began in October, after approval from the council and full funding from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Andrew Ittigson of AECOM, the consulting firm that worked on the plan with the city’s transit department, presented the plan Monday and noted it is one of several plans in development throughout the state.

The goals of these plans, Ittigson said, include:

  • Improving coordination of services to meet transportation needs.

  • Increasing ridership/usage across the network.

  • Ensuring fiscal responsibility as a transit funding agency.

  • Anticipating and planning for future funding levels to achieve service expansion.

  • Articulating and communicating a vision for the transit system and the benefits it provides to the community.

The Brainerd and Crow Wing Transit system covers 250 square miles in Brainerd, Baxter, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Breezy Point, Deerwood, Crosby, Riverton and Nokay Lake Township in Crow Wing County, along with Pine River in Cass County.

The system is a demand response service -- or Dial-A-Ride -- meaning users schedule rides ahead of time, but also has a regular express route with a specific time schedule for each stop.

Not surprisingly, the majority of transit ridership for 2018 came from Brainerd and Baxter, with Baxter and the south and southeast portions of Brainerd coming in at the top with the most riders. Downtown Brainerd and the Brainerd/Baxter express line are next in terms of ridership, followed by Crosby and Pequot Lakes.

After a series of workshops and meetings with Transit Coordinator Andy Stone and his staff, along with the city’s transportation advisory commission and other community partners, Ittigson said the groups came up with a series of priorities for the five-year plan.

The first priority is staffing.

“Looking for ways to support Andy (Stone) and really then kind of getting into the operation side of things and the marketing side, which I really think will help improve the ridership,” Ittigson said.

Other priority categories include service, capital improvements, technology and marketing.

The first need Ittigson presented as a part of the official plan -- to hire an additional transit employee in Brainerd -- has already been met.

In April, the council agreed to hire a transit operation specialist as an addition to Stone’s one-man department. Crystal Gauthier was hired in July to fill the full-time position, which consists of working with the daily operations and dispatch of the transit system, oversight of third party contractors, verifying end-of-day fares, verifying data for reporting requirements and assisting Stone with any other tasks he may need help with.

Stone told council members in April how he often works close to 80 hours a week and still feels like he misses opportunities to better the transit system. With the new employee, he can now spend more time out in the community on marketing and promotion efforts.

Ittigson presented 16 more needs in the transit department for the next five years as well. Projects and approximate costs include:

  • One additional part-time dispatcher during peak hours, as riders often have a difficult time reaching the one dispatcher during those hours. Timeline: 2020-25. Cost: $31,000.

  • Redesign express routes based on ridership and demand to better meet needs. Timeline: 2020. Cost: $0.

  • Place signs at all express route stops to prevent confusion for new or non-regular riders. Timeline: 2021. Cost: $1,600.

  • Rebranding the system with a new name and more modernized logo. Timeline: 2021. Cost: $4,000.

  • Print updated maps and other marketing materials to familiarize the public with the new agency brand. Timeline: 2021. Cost: $200.

  • Marketing at local events, such as the Crow Wing County Fair, to enhance community awareness of the transit service. Timeline: 2021. Cost; $3,500.

  • Create a social media presence to update riders on schedule changes and enhance community awareness. Timeline: 2020-25. Cost: $0.

  • Build three shelters for express route stops to enhance rider comfort. Timeline: 2022, 2023, 2024. Cost: $14,300 per shelter.

  • Create a mobile app for real-time communication with riders about vehicle arrival times, much like Uber and Lyft apps. Timeline: 2023. Cost: Unknown.

  • Expand Dial-A-Ride service by adding another vehicle to run during peak weekday times. Timeline: 2021. Cost: $93,000.

  • Add another vehicle and expand transit hours. Timeline: 2021. Cost: $82,400.

  • Cashless payment option to simplify rider experience. Timeline: 2023. Cost: Unknown.

  • Identify need for infrastructure upgrades that would be required for expanding the service area. Timeline: 2024. Cost: Unknown.

  • Expand regional service to Pillager on weekdays to enhance accessibility to jobs and other opportunities for residents. Timeline: After 2025. Cost. $45,000.

  • Add vehicle required to expand service to Pillager. Timeline: After 2025. Cost: $82,400.

Ittigson presented a map with additional stops on the express route, which could include Brainerd Industrial Park, Northern Pacific Center and Fourth Avenue and J Street in northeast Brainerd.

Additionally, some existing express route stops with lower ridership could be transitioned to Dial-A-Ride service, including the Baxter Clinic, SuperOne Foods, Westgate Mall and Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center. That way, there would still be service to those places but it would be on-demand to save time for other riders.

The transportation advisory committee, Stone said, will review the express route stops and other suggestions from the five-year plan and bring them before the council likely beginning at the end of the year.