Patty Thorsen just wants to get to movies and meetings on time with little fuss.
The St. Paul resident, who uses a wheelchair because she has cerebral palsy and osteoarthritis, often books rides with Metro Mobility, the metro area's transit service for people with disabilities. But riding the bus with others can be time-consuming and circuitous — so Thorsen sometimes uses a taxi service subsidized by the Metropolitan Council.
Now, the regional planning body may consider adding a 21st century transportation option — ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft — to augment its existing mix of "paratransit" choices for some 40,000 Twin Citians who are unable to use traditional buses or light rail.
Other transit providers across the country, including in Boston, Kansas City and the St. Petersburg, Fla., area, are experimenting with programs involving ride-sharing firms, too. The idea is to provide efficient and cost-effective service as baby boomers age and demand surges.
Transit agencies "need to think outside of the bus," said Robbie Makinen, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which rolled out a ride-sharing pilot program last year.
But not everyone is a fan of using Uber and Lyft to supplement Metro Mobility. Met Council Member Edward Reynoso said he has "grave concerns" about the way ride-sharing firms check drivers' backgrounds, and he questions whether they have sufficient insurance.
"There's no way we should put any of our customers in a vulnerable position," he said.
With an annual budget of $73 million, costs for Metro Mobility have increasingly usurped the Met Council's state funding for metro-area transit service. The gap is one of the reasons the council is anticipating about a $100 million budget deficit in 2020-2021.
Cutting service to make ends meet isn't an option — Metro Mobility, which provided more than 2.2 million rides in 2016, is federally mandated, and state law expands those boundaries even beyond that.
Because of the mandate, Metro Mobility is the first transit item to be funded by the council, so as the budget balloons, regular local bus service may be shortchanged. The average subsidy of a Metro Mobility trip is $23.84.
At the same time, demand for Metro Mobility service has been growing — surging 77 percent between 2006 and 2016.
Last year, the Legislature created a task force to explore ways to make Metro Mobility more efficient and cost-effective. The group's report was presented to lawmakers and to the Met Council last week. While the Uber/Lyft pilot program was one of many recommendations, there's no guarantee it will happen.
"With the advent of Uber and Lyft and the fact other cities are doing this, we wanted to really delve into it," said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, who chairs the Transportation and Regional Governance Policy Committee. "Maybe this is the time to give it a try."
Faced with a similar budget conundrum, Boston was the first city in the country to jump into an Uber and Lyft pilot program in October 2016. It proved instantly popular and was later rolled out to all 50,000 eligible customers, said Ben Schutzman, director of transportation innovation for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Uber and Lyft proved far cheaper on a per-trip basis when compared to traditional paratransit service, but those savings have been offset by increased demand. In the first quarter of fiscal 2018, close to 8,000 trips per month were taken on Uber and Lyft, where customers pay the first $2 and then are subsidized up to $40 a trip.
The program expires April 1, and Schutzman expects it to continue. When customers were asked to rate their satisfaction level with the pilot program, the score was higher than corporate darlings Apple and Amazon.
"The customers know it's a pilot and that we're constantly tinkering with it to make it better," Schutzman said.
The transit agency in Kansas City introduced a ride-share pilot program on May 1 called RideKC Freedom, which features a smartphone app to book taxi rides in the downtown area. While the partnership with a local company was created (and partly subsidized) for people with disabilities and the elderly, the service is also available to anyone in need of a cab. (They pay full fare and aren't subjected to surge pricing.)
"A percentage of that money helps defray the cost of our paratransit [service]," Makinen said. "So when you book a ride, you're paying it forward and helping your folks in your community with a disability. Which is pretty cool."
Since May 1, 65,000 rides have been provided through the program, which is expected to expand its territory this year.
Met Council officials said they will begin "exploratory talks" with Uber and Lyft in coming months, a prospect that caused unrest among some council members last week.
In a statement, Uber said it takes crafting "new solutions to the mobility challenge faced by the disability community" seriously. The San Francisco-based firm said it is "eager to continue working" with the Met Council.
Likewise, Lyft noted it is in "ongoing discussions" on how to expand mobility options for the disability community here. "We are committed to ensuring people who need rides the most are able to get them," the company said.
Another option would involve expanding an existing, but little-known, premium same-day taxi service for certified Metro Mobility customers like Thorsen.
The Met Council contracts with Taxi Services Inc. of New Hope. The customer pays the first $5 of the fare and any amount over $20, with Metro Mobility kicking in up to $15. The service provides about 6,000 rides for Metro Mobility customers a month.
Harold Morgan of the Maryland-based Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association said "taxis have stepped up their game" as a result of Uber and Lyft entering the marketplace.
Ken Rodgers, a member of the legislative task force who is blind, said he's "trying to balance the concept of improving Metro Mobility service for users and then trying to find ways to take pressure off the overall system."
Rodgers, who helped establish the council's taxi service in 2004, said he has concerns about ride-sharing firms, such as whether they have a sufficient number of -accessible vehicles and sufficient driver training.
And, he acknowledges, "it won't solve all the problems."