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Unclear Future for Metro Dial-a-Ride

June 23, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Only one out of 10 Twin Cities-area residents has convenient access to regular transit service that runs at least every 15 minutes for most of the day.  Including routes with half-hour headways, it's still just a quarter of the metro population that enjoys reasonably frequent bus or light-rail schedules.

These lucky folks live almost exclusively in the core cities or first-ring suburbs. That's hardly surprising, considering that most of those areas were developed with streetcars, not automobiles, in mind as a primary means of mobility.
The privately-owned Twin Cities streetcar system was among the world's finest, with more than 500 miles of track stretching from Stillwater to Excelsior.

Today's public bus system largely follows its old routes. And that leaves out great swaths of low-density suburbs that have sprung up since the 1950s -- under the increasingly doubtful assumption that private cars will be residents' main links to jobs, shopping and other activities away from home.

But not everyone can drive, and significant numbers people without cars are among the three-quarters of metro residents who also are virtually transit-less. The Metropolitan Council, given the task of providing "a basic level of mobility for all people in the metropolitan area" under state law, has struggled for years with this situation.
What has developed is a patchwork of Metro Transit and independent bus routes, plus 20 separate dial-a-ride services from Hastings to Minnetonka. Even that leaves transit gaps dotting the Met Council's seven-county jurisdiction. Nine cities and townships have no transit at all, while some far-flung localities have both dial-up and regular service.

Now the council has resolved to bring some consistency, streamlining and equity to the current non-system. It hopes to reach more riders and better coordinate with regular bus routes without increasing the $4.7 million a year it spends on dial-a-ride operations.

The change to uniform service hours, operating policies and fares (possibly with distance-based surcharges and group discounts) across the region is supposed to happen January 1st. Meanwhile, however, news reports have noted the concern of some current dial-a-riders, many of them elderly, over the prospect of losing a vital service that keeps them connected to society.

Under the plan, all current dial-a-ride contracts will end this year. What will replace them remains unclear beyond the council's hopes to eliminate service duplication and to blanket the region with transit tailored to high-need populations.

That will be a tall order, given that the Twin Cities bus system has actually shrunk by 10 percent since 2002, when chronic budget deficits began plaguing the state. In addition, fares have been raised three times in that span, but ridership continued to reach 50-year highs through 2008.

Amid the recession, Metro Transit patronage backed off 2.5 percent in the first quarter of this year. But a new report from the American Public Transit Association also showed one area of continued galloping ridership growth in Minnesota - suburban dial-a-rides. Anoka's service was up 10.7 percent in the quarter, Burnsville's an amazing 39.2 percent. (Plymouth's fell 20.8 percent; the report didn't cover the other 17 dial-a-rides nor Metro Mobility, the dial service for the handicapped, which will not be affected by the overhaul.)
Together, the dial-a-rides attract about 500,000 patrons a year at an average cost of $15. Some riders pay fares of $4 or more to defray part of it; others, depending on which of the 20 services they use, ride free.

The Met Council's push for more fair and efficient suburban transit is commendable. But the devil will be in the details as counties and communities scrap for their share of too-limited Twin Cities transit resources. It will take a new, expanded vision for 21st century transit from state policymakers to truly attain "mobility for all people."

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