Transportation services in Dakota County are like a bowl of pasta.

At least that’s how researchers and officials have taken to describing them — a tangled “spaghetti” of agencies and volunteers that get different funds and do not coordinate efforts, leading to service gaps.

People spend up to three hours just to get to a medical appointment, with bus transfers and wait time. Other residents attend technical colleges and training programs outside the county because they can’t get to local colleges, a study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies found.

The county hopes to change its service system — or lack thereof — by creating a Transportation Coordinating Collaborative, one of seven recommendations in the Center for Transportation Studies report.

The group met for the first time in March with representatives from the county and its Community Development Agency, DARTS, Metropolitan Council, Minnesota Valley Transit Association and Minnesota Department of Transportation. They will collectively make decisions, including what grants to apply for and how to share data.

“It really does create more of a countywide lens to address transportation issues,” County Community Services Director Kelly Harder said.

The new approach will aim to make traveling more efficient for people with disabilities, the elderly and lower income individuals, he said. It will also cut costs for the county and other social service providers, who often have to drive clients to appointments or court dates.

Serving aging riders

For an aging population, well-run transportation is increasingly important, said Courtney Whited, the mobility management program director at DARTS.

She is creating a website for the county, which she likens to Travelocity, where riders can search local transportation options and decide what best meets their needs for a trip. Whited anticipates the site will begin operating on a test basis in certain locations by the end of this year.

Whited has worked in the transportation industry for nine years and said in that time she has seen about two dozen senior transportation providers in the metro area shut down. Expenses and regulatory complexity usually force them to close, she said.

“It’s becoming, to me personally, a crisis state,” Whited said.

There are 30 transportation providers in Dakota County, from Metro Transit to Uber to volunteer groups, like nonprofit Neighbors Inc., she said. Those agencies need to share resources so if one goes under they do not leave service gaps in their wake, Whited said.

It’s difficult to get agencies to work together and stop vying for the same limited resources, Whited said, but she hopes the Transportation Coordinating Collaborative will encourage them to look past the competition for funding.

“We’re here for the same end result,” Whited said. “How do we provide more with less money?”

The collaborative is the first step in a long process to organize transportation systems and use money more strategically, County Administrator Brandt Richardson told commissioners at a recent meeting.

The county is hiring a transportation coordinator to help implement those changes. It received $160,000 from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to fund the position and Whited’s work.

MnDOT has been emphasizing collaboration for years. The Minnesota Council on Transportation Access was created in 2010 to improve coordination and has been trying to establish regional groups like Dakota County’s.

“Dakota County is a leader in the effort here within the state,” said Noel Shughart, principal planner with MnDOT’s transit office. He expects similar collaborations to pop up around Minnesota in a year.

Shughart, like Whited, has seen many transportation providers close in the past few years.

“The demand far exceeds the supply,” he said, so groups need to be strategic.

Some providers only drive the elderly while others just give rides to people with disabilities in the same area. They could be sharing a bus and scheduling resources, he said.

“We’re trying to break those silos down,” Shughart said.