TJPB Service Design Explained – Trailblazer Transit vs. SMART-RIDE
Trailblazer Joint Powers Board (TJPB) is the legal name of the organization that operates Trailblazer Transit, a Section 5311 public transportation system funded with federal, state, and local tax dollars. The designation “5311” refers to the language used by the Federal government to identify a specific type of transportation program and related funding. The Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Transit and Active Transportation (generally referred to as MnDOT or OTAT) is responsible for allocating Minnesota’s share of the federal funds to all the 5311 transportation providers in the state.
To obtain 5311 funding, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board is required to submit an annual application to MnDOT. Although referred to generically as a grant application, the funding is not considered to be a typical grant as the 5311 program is intended to operate in perpetuity, whereas grants are generally limited in duration. As part of the application process, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board creates a service plan that specifically identifies: 1) the type(s) of public transit service, 2) the geographical areas that are served, and 3) the hours of operation. The service plan then becomes part of an annual contract for service between Trailblazer Joint Powers Board and the MnDOT Office of Transit and Active Transportation. Consequently, the Trailblazer Transit program has limitations on where, when, and how it can operate.
Due to the restrictions of the 5311 service plan, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board decided to supplement the 5311 program with another service called SMART-RIDE. SMART is an acronym for Sibley McLeod Auxiliary Regional Transit (NOTE: The SMART-RIDE program was named in 2007, long before Wright County joined the partnership in 2019). The SMART-RIDE program is essentially all the transportation services that Trailblazer Joint Powers Board provides outside the scope of the 5311 service plan and related funding. SMART-RIDE is a service funded entirely with local dollars that 1) allows people to go places where the 5311 program does not, and/or 2) allows people to be transported during times that are beyond the parameters of the 5311 program, including transportation during the early morning, late evening, nighttime, and on weekends and holidays.
SMART-RIDE provides bus and minivan service that is available to the general public. The buses and minivans are owned by Trailblazer Joint Powers Board. The SMART-RIDE buses and minivans are all handicapped accessible and can operate anywhere within the State of Minnesota and during any time of the day or week. This means that SMART-RIDE can operate both inside and outside the 5311 service area and during times when the 5311 bus service is operating. Additionally, the bus and minivan drivers are paid employees who have professional driver training, as opposed to volunteer drivers that are often utilized by many other transportation programs. In fact, the professional SMART-RIDE drivers are likely the same employees who drive the Trailblazer Transit buses. However, it should be noted that the SMART-RIDE service is always funded and administered separately from the 5311 program.
Volunteer Driver Program Discontinued in 2019
Please note that Trailblazer Joint Powers Board discontinued its volunteer driver program in January 2019 due to the decline in volunteers and issues associated with safety, quality of service delivery, liability, and mileage reimbursement regulations. Instead of operating a volunteer driver program, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board desires to address regional transportation needs by further expanding its 5311 public transit system, developing its SMART-RIDE program, and coordinating with other transportation providers. For clarification purposes, a volunteer driver program generally relies on the use of unpaid individuals using their own personal vehicles to transport people, whereas professional drivers who are highly-trained employees generally operate all commercial equipment including buses and vans.
Trailblazer Joint Powers Board operated a volunteer driver program for approximately 20 years, and the volunteer driver program served an important, but limited, purpose during that time to provide stop-gap, regional transportation that was generally more affordable than other types of transportation. However, Trailblazer Joint Powers Board has since developed a much more robust regional public transit system (Trailblazer Transit) and a complementary common carrier transportation program (SMART-RIDE) that significantly reduced the need to operate a volunteer driver program. Trailblazer Joint Powers Board believes that volunteer driver programs are an antiquated mode of service delivery and that organizations should make the investment to transition into professional transportation services, especially ones that coordinate rides for multiple customers going mostly in the same direction and at approximately the same time.
Trailblazer Joint Powers Board Service Design
Description of 5311 Service Plan (Trailblazer Transit) – CY2022
Trailblazer Transit provides general public transportation with transit buses throughout Sibley, McLeod, and Wright Counties. The service area also includes up to one mile beyond the Sibley County and McLeod County borders. However, Trailblazer Transit’s service area does not extend one mile beyond the Wright County border. If any city is partially located within the aforementioned boundaries, then Trailblazer Transit will provide service throughout the entire city as defined by official corporate city limits.
The Trailblazer Transit service area also includes the following service corridors: 1) between Cokato and to the west of Dassel in Meeker County, 2) between Plato and Norwood Young America in Carver County, and 3) between Winsted and Waconia in Carver County. Please note that Trailblazer Transit’s 5311 service area includes all locations within the city limits of Dassel, Mayer, Norwood Young America, Waconia, and Watertown.
Trailblazer Transit also provides public transportation service to/from/within Big Lake Township, the City of Big Lake, and the City of Elk River in Sherburne County plus the City of Rogers in Hennepin County. However, Trailblazer Transit may only transport individuals primarily associated with Sibley, McLeod, or Wright Counties in these neighboring counties. For example, Trailblazer may transport a resident of Wright County or an out-of-state traveler staying in a hotel in Wright County into Elk River (please note that residency is not a requirement to use the transit system). However, Trailblazer Transit can only provide transportation to people primarily associated with Sherburne or Hennepin Counties if the public transit system responsible to operate in these other counties provides Trailblazer Transit with written authorization to do so.
Trailblazer Transit may also transport individuals to/from the New Ulm Medical Center in Brown County and the Two Twelve Medical Center in Carver County, but these facilities are specific service points outside of the contiguous service area. Unlike service corridors, Trailblazer Transit cannot stop along the way to/from these locations unless there are emergency circumstances while en route.
General public transportation service is available to almost anyone for almost any reason on weekdays between 6:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. except on New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and December 25th.
The types of general public transportation provided are demand response service (also called dial-a-ride), stop guarantee service, and contract service. Trailblazer Transit does not provide route, flexible route, subscription, package delivery, or charter service within the 5311 service plan. However, as an extension of demand response service, Trailblazer Transit provides all customers with the opportunity to make standing order requests and the ability to pay for their rides through a billing system. Trailblazer Transit also supports food security initiatives (such as meal delivery service) during the pandemic.
Trailblazer Transit is not a Special Transportation Service (STS) provider and does not provide emergency medical transportation.
Trailblazer Transit – Map of 5311 Service Area
Parameters for Demand Response Service
A) Customers must schedule and cancel all rides with a dispatcher.
B) The service provided is door-to-door.
C) Casual ride requests can be scheduled up to seven days in advance. Standing orders can be scheduled between 8 and 14 days in advance. Trailblazer Transit is unable to manage requests any further in advance due to technology and procedural limitations. Same-day and on-demand requests are welcomed, but such last-minute requests may be difficult to accommodate due to other rides that are scheduled in advance.
D) Rides are provided subject to the availability of resources including employees, vehicles, technology, and finances. Resources are shared among all those wanting to access the service.
E) Due to the limited number of buses that are available to provide service relative to the greater demand that exists, the criteria listed below have been established to determine how the buses are utilized.
In order of priority, the buses that provide demand response service are given to:
- The pickups or series of pickups that yield the most number of rides.
- The pickups or series of pickups that yield the best efficiency as determined by the following performance measures in priority order:
A) Rides per service hour C) Cost per ride
B) Service miles per ride D) Cost per service mile
Please note that Trailblazer Transit does not allocate its resources for demand response service based on the reason for the transportation or the order of the ride request except 1) if the criteria listed above offer no definitive priority or 2) if there are emergency or unusual circumstances.
F) Trailblazer Transit may reschedule or cancel previously scheduled rides to achieve better system performance provided that any affected customers are notified within a reasonable time period. Reasonable notice shall not be less than 24 hours, unless shorter notice is acceptable to the customers inconvenienced by any scheduling changes. Performance can be measured over varying time periods up to one year in length including hours, days, weeks, or months.
G) Customers may submit standing order ride requests, but such requests do not guarantee service. Standing orders are subject to the same criteria for distributing resources as standard requests. To qualify as a standing order, a ride request must recur on a specific weekday for at least four consecutive weeks.
H) Customers may pay when boarding the bus or by means of a billing system. The billing system is available to the general public without the need for credit checks or contracts.
I) Customers must comply with general operating policies and procedures including cancellations, passenger assistance, behavior, ability to communicate, and payment for rides. Failure to adhere to such procedures may result in the denial of service.
Parameters for Contract Service
A) MnDOT and the Trailblazer Governing Board must approve contracts prior to execution.
B) All contract service is considered general public transportation.
C) Only open-door contract service is permitted, meaning that the buses shall remain open for the general public or customers from other contracts to ride on a space available basis. Additionally, the contract times may not be scheduled in such a manner that prevents other members of the general public from riding at the same time as the contract customers.
D) Contract customers must comply with all standard operating policies and procedures with the exception of the policies outlined below.
E) The operating policies that may be waived or modified for contract service include 1) the requirement to schedule bus rides with a dispatcher, 2) the seven-day limitation on scheduling bus rides, 3) the pickup window, 4) cancellations, and 5) no-shows. If any of these policies are not specifically addressed by the approved contract, then the standard operating policy shall apply. No other operating policies may be waived or modified for contract service.
F) Fares for contract service are generally higher than general public fares and may be customized to meet the needs of the customer or the transit system. Fares may vary between contracts.
G) All contract fares must be billed.
H) In the event there is a shortage of resources, such as buses or drivers, Trailblazer Transit shall reallocate its resources, within reason, to insure the continued operation of contract service.
I) Trailblazer Transit makes no guarantee to the availability of contract service in the event of extraordinary or emergency circumstances.
Productivity Performance Standards
All 5311 bus service is governed by the Productivity Performance Standards policy established by the Trailblazer Joint Powers Board on October 16, 2003. The policy states that each bus schedule must maintain a minimum average of 3.0 rides per service hour per day over any three-month period. The inability of a bus schedule to meet this performance standard means that the service being provided by that specific bus schedule may be discontinued if its productivity does not increase above the minimum threshold within three to six months.
Population Estimates for Areas Served
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center, July 2016 Report