On a cold, gray Thursday morning at the Scott County Workforce Center, a group of people huddled around a bus stop bench, smoking cigarettes and eating Twizzlers.

A series of SmartLink Transit buses came and went, picking up passengers and dropping them off. It was 9:30 a.m., and Betty Leonhardt had already been driving for nearly four hours.

All SmartLink drivers and some additional staff members will be laid off later this year in the wake of a nearly $600,000 Americans with Disabilities Act funding cut from the Metropolitan Council. The driver positions will be contracted out, a change that has current drivers worried about a diminished quality of service for passengers. The drivers’ union and the county are mulling a few possible solutions for both drivers and passengers, but it’s not yet clear how the situation will be resolved.

Current drivers — who are county employees — will likely be given the option to apply for a job through the contractor, although that could mean less pay and fewer benefits.

“It’s a hard landing for some of these people,” Scott County AFSCME President Brad Benson said.

Leonhardt plans to continue working, but she’s not sure where. She’s worried about what’ll happen to the passengers she’s developed relationships with.

On that Thursday morning, she arrived at her next stop by 9:36 a.m., a few minutes early. SmartLink drivers are allowed a 15-minute window on either side of a scheduled pickup time. As soon as they park, they push a button to start a three-minute timer for the passenger.

Leonhardt knew this particular passenger would take a while to come out of her house and went up to her door to check on her when the three-minute timer went off.

At least once or twice a day, there’s a passenger who doesn’t show up, she said. But most are ready and waiting when she arrives. She knows their names; she remembers things about them. She’ll ask one woman about her cat, a man about his polka dancing lessons.

“I tell people it’s my corner office with a window,” she said.

Service already strained

Transit services in Scott and Carver counties merged into a single service under the SmartLink umbrella in late 2013. SmartLink offers multiple types of rides, including transportation specifically for people with disabilities — funded under the ADA — and Dial-a-Ride, which serves all residents.

In recent years, Dial-a-Ride has had an increasing number of denials, or unmet ride requests, in large part because drivers are stretched thin. Last year, there were about 5,000 denials — and that number is only expected to grow with the aging population.

A solution may lie in the half-cent retail sales tax that the Scott County Board is currently considering. The tax, which may go into effect Oct. 1, would generate funds that the county could use for transportation projects. County staff members have recommended using $1 million annually for transit, which could involve expanding Dial-a-Ride hours on evenings and weekends.

It’s not yet clear, though, if the board will approve the tax. And even if approved, most of the money will go toward road projects.

Passengers brace for change

Sharon Arrell has lived in Shakopee since 1959 but grew up riding buses and streetcars in north Minneapolis. She’s used SmartLink to get to appointments for nearly three years, and said she never gets off the bus without telling the driver that she appreciates them.

“The passengers trust us,” Leonhardt said. “They like it when a familiar face shows up at their door, and here we are.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing SmartLink employees, has taken an active stance against the layoffs. It has distributed information about the layoffs to its members and the general public, and has also encouraged riders to contact their county commissioners. But at a certain point, there’s only so much that can be done.

“It’s a little hard to maintain this over a long period of time,” Benson said. “Do we keep on asking people to make phone calls over and over again?”