Program changes could help, hamper many riders

Changes to Twin Cities regional dial-a-ride services are coming down the road. Starting in January 2010 senior citizens in many […]

Changes to Twin Cities regional dial-a-ride services are coming down the road. Starting in January 2010 senior citizens in many suburban communities will see changes in how they get around. Even the transit program’s name is changing, to Transit Link. The change was one of many adopted July 22 by Metropolitan Council, following months of study and debate.

Metro Mobility Bus

Metro Mobility Bus

Dial-a-ride services are publicly funded and provide transit services for seniors, mainly in Twin Cities suburbs. The programs are funded wholly or in part by Metropolitan Council. More than 450,000 riders used the programs last year. The services utilize small vans to transport riders to appointments, shopping and other destinations.

Throughout the Twin Cities region, senior citizens will see comparable fares, schedules and program regulations starting in 2010. Weekday schedules would be 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., with host counties having the option of paying for more services. Counties are also being asked if they want to cover weekend hours.

The services will be curb-to-curb, rather than the door-to-door services provided now. Assistance from drivers will be limited. Riders who are certified as disabled can still get an escort from their door and get help with up to four shopping bags.

But how other changes affect riders depends on where riders live. Riders who live within a set distance of bus or light rail services will be dropped from dial-a-ride programs. The distance will be a half-mile from April 1 to Oct. 31, and a quarter-mile from Nov. 1 to March 31. The transit distance requirement is seen as having the most impacts on northern Dakota County and parts of Hennepin County, where there is existing bus service. Some seniors and advocacy groups contend that the distance is still too far for some seniors to travel on foot. But others hail the changes, especially if they have no service. Parts of Dakota County have duplication, while parts of northern Ramsey and Anoka counties have no service at all.

Numerous Twin Cities communities have had dial-a-ride services for many years. Some programs were overseen by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), before being handing to the Regional Transit Board (RTB) in 1984. When the RTB and Metropolitan Council merged in 1994, Metropolitan Council took over those services.

As of Jan. 1, 2010 communities with more than one diala- ride service will no longer see an overlap, unless a service finds other funding elsewhere. And persons in communities where no service has existed in the past will be able to use dial-a-ride. A single phone number will serve the region’s providers.

“The goal of restructuring dial-a-ride services is to provide greater consistency in this service throughout the region,” said Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell. “Each county has a role in determining standard operating guidelines. Ultimately, we want to make sure the rider who boards a dial-a-ride bus in Anoka has the same experience as a rider in West St. Paul.”

Four metro-area counties have chosen the Metropolitan Council to operate dial-a-ride services in their area. Anoka County and Carver/Scott counties, which have a current partnership to provide transit services, will continue to operate their services as they do today. But there are still unknowns. It isn’t clear what changes to dial-a-ride services could mean to the disability community and riders of Metro Mobility.

Metro Mobility is the regional transit service for persons with disabilities, also provided by Metropolitan Council. Riders must meet Americans with Disabilities\ Act (ADA) guidelines to be eligible to use Metro

Mobility services which many seniors already do. Metro Mobility, which provides door-to-door transportation

services for persons with disabilities. Metro Mobility isn’t directly affected by the changes approved July 22. During discussions of dial-a-ride changes, it has been suggested that senior citizens with disabilities can use Metro Mobility instead of dial-a-ride if the seniors meet the ADA certification requirement. But what’s not known is how many dial-a-ride users could or would seek the ADA certification needed to sign up for Metro Mobility services and how increased levels of demand could affect Metro Mobility.

Ron Biss chairs the Transportation Accessibility Advisory Committee (TAAC) for Metropolitan Council. He said committee members are aware of the dial-a-ride changes but haven’t been tracking them closely. That’s because much of the TAAC’s time in recent months has been spent scrutinizing accessibility issues related to the Central Corridor light rail project.

“These are issues we do need to take a look at,” said Biss of the dial-a-ride changes.

Biss doesn’t believe that potentially having more people seek ADA certification and move to Metro Mobility services would have a negative impact on those services. “If people qualify for Metro Mobility services, they should certainly apply.”

Metropolitan Council will spend $3.1 million in operations and $800,000 in capital costs for 14 dial-a-ride programs overseen by counties, cities and nonprofits. Another $1.6 million will be spent this year on services provided directly by Metropolitan Council, to the communities of Minnetonka, Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, Woodbury and Stillwater. Those communities began to receive services after their midday bus service was cut. But city-specific services will lose funding to the regional approach.

In 2010 a funding formula will be used to determine how services are funded and contracts for service awarded, with funding based on population, size of an area, number of transit-dependent people, and number of people with disabilities. Lack of mid-day transit service is another factor when determining if a community needs dial-a-ride programming.

The next set of changes on the table centers on proposed adjustments to dial-a-ride fares. (See related story.)Those, too, could have an impact as riders look at paying more in some cases, and paying less in others.

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