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County to explore public transit options

Otter Tail County may be expanding its public transit system to help people get to and from work.

After some major employers – including some in Perham – cited transportation as a significant challenge to filling open positions, county commissioners last week agreed to increase the county’s transit coverage, and to put together a committee to explore their options.

 The county currently has a partnership with Otter Tail Express to meet some transportation needs through the use of small busses that operate in certain areas (mostly within Fergus Falls). The majority of this large, rural county, however, has no sort of public transportation.

That makes it difficult for people who don’t have their own vehicles, or who don’t have reliable or dependable vehicles, to get to and from work. And for some would-be commuters, the gas and vehicle maintenance costs necessary for a 20 to 30 mile drive is simply not affordable.

The problem was brought up during a recent meeting of the county’s economic development committee, which includes a handful of Perham residents and business owners.

“Several challenges to gain and retain employees were identified” at that meeting, according to county commissioner Doug Huebsch of Perham. “One of the main challenges is transportation to and from job sites.”

Hundreds of jobs are currently available within Otter Tail County. Large employers like KLN Family Brands and Bongard’s Creameries in Perham were mentioned specifically at last week’s county board meeting, as well as Jennie-O Turkey in Pelican Rapids, and others.

Establishing a public transportation system may help fill those jobs. But in a county as large as Otter Tail, the trick will be figuring out “how to move people about in an economical and effective way,” said Huebsch.

Huebsch, along with fellow county commissioner Lee Rogness, was assigned to work on the newly formed transportation committee. It’s so new that other members are still being recruited, and they aren’t expected to start meeting for at least another week or two.

When they do meet, they’ll likely be looking into the formation of some sort of regional bus line. County board members agreed that a system utilizing State Highways 78 and 210, along with various other possibilities, should be investigated. Ultimately, they’d like to find a viable, economical, and sustainable transportation solution.

Olmsted County, for example, which surrounds Rochester in the southern part of Minnesota, has a transit system that travels within a 50-mile radius, Huebsch said. He added that their system is workable and well-used “by anybody who doesn’t want to worry about a commute.”

After further study, transportation committee members may find that a system like Olmsted’s would be ideal for Otter Tail County. Or, it might not. The committee will be looking into Otter Tail’s specific needs, and trying to determine how to best meet those needs.

“By statute, counties provide transit,” said Huebsch, explaining that the law allows some counties to take more aggressive approaches to transit than others. Where there are metro areas, for example, there are more transit options, but, “Out here, it’s a little tougher... All the questions need to be answered: Is it worthwhile? Is it feasible? Would people ride it? We’re trying to figure out how to make this thing economical.”

Marie Nitke

Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent