Dakota County may be one of the most populous counties in Minnesota, but a study released Wednesday indicates it lacks a public transportation system that operates with any sense of cohesiveness.
Large employers and the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce took note. They say it's difficult to attract and retain workers without reliable transit. And most residents have few dependable public transportation options to get to work, run errands or go to school.
The privately funded review, conducted by the Dallas-based consulting firm Huitt-Zollars and local transit advocates East Metro Strong, calls on the county to redesign current routes to better target employment, educational, retail and medical hubs.
"The county's biggest employers made this happen because it's important to them," said Maureen Scallen Failor, president of the Dakota County chamber. "There's also a lot of interest among our small businesses."
Christof Spieler, vice president and director of planning at Huitt-Zollars, noted that Dakota County's population is spread out but "employment hubs are concentrated."
Spieler, a former board member of Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority, was a key player when the sprawling Texas city overhauled its outdated transit system five years ago.
In some ways, Spieler said, Dakota County is similar to Houston because it's remarkably diverse — there are suburbs, exurbs, small cities such as Hastings and cities like West St. Paul laid out on an urban grid.
Current transit options in Dakota County tend to focus on ferrying 9-to-5 commuters to and from Minneapolis and St. Paul. More limited are reverse commuting opportunities for workers employed in the county, those working nontraditional hours and students attending school.
U.S. Census data note that more than 14% of Dakota County's workforce live in Minneapolis or St. Paul and commute to major employment centers near Eagan, Burnsville or the Interstate 35E/Hwy. 55 junction. But there are few transit routes to those jobs, and routes that do run are infrequent.
"It is a challenge for the county to plan for transit because it's so spread out," said Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong. "You have to come up with different ways to serve many different needs."
Chamber officials declined to say how much the study cost but said that no public funds were used.
The study suggests creating new transit hubs that could facilitate east/west and north/south connections.
It also says county officials need to define a stable source of state and federal transportation funding; the county now collects $17 million to $20 million a year from a sales tax dedicated for transportation.
Chamber officials and community partners said they plan to use the study to push for better transportation options in Dakota County. "It won't be put on a shelf collecting dust," Scallen Failor said.