The Heartland Express has been a seemingly successful collaborative transit program between Chisago and Isanti counties; but last week the Isanti County Board agreed to basically sever ties in being funded with a state transit aid grant-- and the Chisago County Board could do nothing to reverse that. The fine print in the collaborative contract left the commissioners no option but to continue to collaborate with Isanti towards a shared busing system. (The vote was 4-1 with Rick Greene opposed due to wording in the resolution he didn’t like.)
There will be requests for proposals sought for new transit system operators, through MN Department of Transportation. A new funding stream for the new structure of Heartland will also be sought.
Chisago County Commissioners learned that under language of the 2018 collaborative powers agreement on Heartland Express operations, there was really nothing they could do about these latest developments. Meeting in the morning on the same day of the Chisago evening session, Isanti County commissioners had voted 5-0 to no longer use the current grant.
Isanti County was established as the lead entity and it alone enters into contracts on behalf of the program. All Heartland Express workers are Isanti County employees. Program assets are under the control of Isanti. Chisago County-owned storage space used for equipment is actually leased back to Isanti. Chisago County pays a very small percentage of costs and capital purchases. A $100,000 Heartland bus, for example, needed only about $15,000 as Chisago County’s cost-share.
Chase Burnham, Chisago County Administrator, explained during the County Board’s August 19 meeting that Isanti was put in as the lead for Heartland Express because the state/federal funding stream available a couple years ago was more favorable to “rural” routes and service. The level of state aid was far greater for the system with Isanti tied to it. The choice basically boiled down to: Chisago County can either choose to continue to align with Isanti and benefit from being part of a state assisted transit program or it can go out on its own and foot the whole bill.
George McMahon, county board liaison on the Heartland Express committee, said the goal is to provide the best transit program possible for the citizens. McMahon said there are issues he can’t discuss in public dealing with personnel; that have been under discussion for a while and a potential shake-up has been on the horizon.
Commissioner Mike Robinson, who also attends Heartland committee meetings, said the state has wanted this transit system to include additional counties for years.
Heartland Express Director Paul Smith, however, stated none of this was officially made clear to anybody involved in the bus system. Now, he said, action seems “rushed.” Smith is the third system director in several years.
Heartland Express bus drivers also spoke during the Chisago County Board public comment portion of the agenda, and stated nobody had been warned and wanted their jobs protected. They say their organization is functioning well and it will be difficult to find a replacement company or public agency.
Shana Andreotti said any outside provider that wins the future bid to takeover the system won’t know the area.
Driver Bob Gustafson said there must be something going on “in the background” because the program enjoys growing ridership and there’s no discord or dissent in the operations.
Dan Krause said there are citizens who rely on the service and asked that any requests for proposals process be postponed.