‘It’s been a good run:’ SMART to celebrate 10 years of operation

Published 5:53 pm Friday, December 29, 2023

What started as three separate transit companies is thriving as one, serving a four-county area and entering its 10th year of operation.

On Wednesday, Southern Minnesota Area Transit (SMART) announced that it would begin celebrating a decade of service starting as early as January as it looks to carry that celebration deep through the new year.

“It’s been a good run and we’re looking forward to the next 10 years,” said SMART Transit Manager Kirk Kuchera.

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SMART came together on Jan. 2, 2014 through the consolidation of transit companies in Austin, Albert Lea and Steele County — Austin-Mower Area Transit, Albert Lea Transit and Steele County Area Transit.

All three were successful in their own areas and just the year before the consolation, AMCAT was named Transit Authority of the Year by the Minnesota Public Transportation Association.

Just two years after it was formed, SMART added Waseca to the service.

In total, SMART covers nearly 2,300 square miles providing access to public transportation to over 125,000 individuals with a fleet of nearly 35 buses.

“We have great partnerships in all the communities, specifically here in Austin,” Kuchera said when talking about the strengths of the business, which is based in Austin, and its partnerships. “We have phenomenal partnerships with places like the United Way and the various preschools we work with.”

From that original consolidation of services, SMART retained 11 original members from the first day. On that first day in 2014, SMART employed 45 staff, but has since ballooned to 73 positions across the four sites.

“Our staffing levels have grown about 75% in the last 10 years,” Kuchera said, adding that the company as a whole has added buses, routes and services as well.

To get to this point, Kuchera said that much of the credit goes to the employees working to serve people in the four counties.

“Certainly our staff,” he said. “I know that’s cliche, but our staff is incredible. They are passionate about the communities we serve and the people we serve.”

The key to that pride, Kuchera said, is understanding what public transit means to people.

“Public transportation offers a level of independence to people that wouldn’t otherwise have it,” he said. “The elderly, disabled or children going to preschool — individuals who can’t get out to do what they need to do without public transportation.”

Not only does that include freedom, but it also includes important routes such as making sure that people have a consistent route from Austin to Albert Lea to receive dialysis or other medical treatments at Mayo Clinic Health System-Albert Lea and Austin.

“Our drivers, dispatchers, managers, they are so passionate about the people we serve,” Kuchera said. “They sincerely care for individuals and want to help them.”

At some point Kuchera hopes to continue that success by again looking at possibly expanding services in some way. Up through January of 2020, SMART was expanding almost annually, however, the COVID-19 pandemic put a quick halt to that expansion.

At the same time Kuchera sees a future for more, especially once staffing in the four counties returns to previous levels.

“We do have reduced services in three of the four communities, especially because we can’t get the staff,” Kuchera said. “In Waseca, we have more openings than we do staff. It’s impacting the community and our drivers see that.”

Still, Kuchera is optimistic about the future and during a meeting with transit companies around the state expressed a vision in the relatively near future that could possibly spread SMART’s reach.

Any expansions could include improved service into the county.

“Demand is so high in the cities, it’s really hard to get into the county because of the time to get out into the county,” he said. “I could see a future where maybe we have a transit van that does more county-wide service two, three days a week, specific to those populations.”

For the time being, however, the company is focusing on celebrating 10 years. There are some plans in play already including handing out items to riders that include things like grocery tote bags with a special logo designed by Games People Play. Drivers and staff will also be wearing special T-shirts to mark the occasion. There are also plans for random giveaways as well as open houses at all four sites closer to spring.

People are encouraged to check SMART’s Facebook page for more details throughout the year to keep on top of things happening at SMART.