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Rochester budget constrains city's desire to expand transit

Rochester City Council members pressed city staff on addressing transit concerns, especially off-peak hours and weekend routes, at budget meetings Wednesday.

The general theme of this year's city of Rochester budget talks: It's hard to meet the needs of a growing city while allocating funds to the Destination Medical Center. City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold said Monday that putting together the budget left him a bit jaded because it was tough to set aside funds for DMC.

"I can't see where there's going to be the money available to fund some of the planned improvements" outside of DMC, Kvenvold said.

The maximum levy increase for 2015 was set by the council at 6.9 percent higher than this year, at $53.5 million. The council reviewed the budget Monday through Wednesday and will finalize plans on Dec. 15.

Earlier in the week, the council heard pleas from both the police and fire departments asking for added staff to provide public safety services for the city.

Transit discussion


Council Member Michael Wojcik called transportation the "most significant unmet need" in the community. "There's this huge, huge population that their needs are not met," he said.

The capital improvement budget and operating funds for transit will increase in 2015 — operating funds will go up to about $328,000 from about $217,000 in 2014, and capital improvements will go up to about $322,000 from about $150,000, Kvenvold said.

But some planned route expansions will not happen, specifically circular crosstown routes and added services to Pinewood, Century Hills, Emerald Hills or service to a U.S. Highway 14 west park-and-ride.

Council Member Mark Bilderback said people who work second or third shift jobs don't have any way to get to work via public transit. "We want them to have jobs," but can't find a way to provide the service, he said.

Despite the concerns, the city's transit manager Tony Knauer said, "We still have a big year." The department will move forward with plans for expanded service to Country Club Manor. Some technology changes will allow riders to track the bus via a phone app and utilize an electronic farebox system, Knauer said in an interview.

One of the biggest transit efforts for 2015 will be completing a transit development plan to identify the needs in Rochester, Knauer said. The plan should take six to nine months to complete and will involve gathering public input.

"I think that before second shift, I think you're going to see more weekend service come to the surface, a need for weekend service," Knauer said. "This plan will provide the evidence. … I don't think we want to blindly expand, we like to know what the needs are."

Currently, busses provide coverage to the whole city on Saturdays with limited schedules, and no busses run on Sundays.


The transit department had also asked to add three busses for expanded routes and replace four older busses on the fleet during 2015. The replacement busses were granted, but not the expansions, Knauer said. It takes 12 to 15 months to actually get a bus after it's ordered, he said. Seven busses were ordered in June and will be in Rochester by October.

"When we buy a bus in 2015, we're actually buying it for 2016," Knauer said.

The DMC plans also show big changes for transit, including a downtown circulator to connect the main Mayo Clinic campus to its Saint Marys Hospital.

"I think we're all struggling with DMC in our minds has probably doubled the size of the city mentally. … Their focus is downtown, and we'll have to integrate with that," Knauer said.

While the city works on the transit plan and DMC plans are finalized, the council offered ideas for things that could be done in the meantime, like using smaller busses or school busses.

"Mayo uses the same company, and we have how many of those on the street?" Bilderback said.

One sentiment was clear: The city can't keep doing what it's been doing with transit and address the need, said Rochester Public Works Director Richard Freese. And it starts with improving outreach.

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