Ridership is surging on the Twin Cities transit service for people with disabilities, and the cost of those Metro Mobility trips is consuming an ever-bigger share of state funding for metro-area transit.

The Metropolitan Council expects the number of rides on the federally mandated service will climb to 2.9 million by 2020, about double what it was in 2010. Absent a fix, the projected cost of those trips — $89 million — could force the agency to reduce regular bus service.

Metro Mobility offers customized, shared-ride transit service to 40,000 people certified as unable to use traditional buses and light rail. A graying and growing population is likely fueling demand, and the Met Council, which oversees Metro Mobility, is one of many transit agencies across the country grappling with rising costs for highly subsidized "paratransit" services.

"They talk about the 'silver tsunami' as what's coming, and I think we're definitely on the front edge of it," said Michael Richter, owner of Transit Team, one of Metro Mobility's contracted providers. "And I think it's going to continue to grow."

Some transit agencies nationwide are eyeing ways to offset the impending demographic shift and rising costs.

Boston recently began subsidizing ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber to provide some of the paratransit service.

That has attracted the interest of the Minnesota Senate, which included the creation of a Metro Mobility task force in its budget bill to examine partnerships with smartphone-based or taxi transportation services.

"At minimum, it pushes the Met Council and Metro Mobility to think outside the box," said Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, who introduced a companion bill in the House.

The rising demand for Metro Mobility comes at a time of sharp budget pressures for the Met Council. It already entered this year with a $74 million deficit — due in part to a decline in projected revenue from the motor vehicle sales tax levied on new vehicle sales. That translates into a $24 million deficit for Metro Mobility over the next two years.

Meanwhile, Republicans at the Legislature are pushing to nearly eliminate the council's general fund appropriation — now at $90 million — by 2021.

The Met Council cried foul when the proposals were announced earlier this month, saying local bus and light rail service would be cut by 40 percent.

Metro Mobility is a particularly rigid part of the council's overall budget, as rides can't be denied within the federally mandated service area, but Met Council Chair Adam Duininck said it wouldn't be spared from the cuts.

"We would have to look at reducing our service as much as we are legally able to do, I believe," Duininck said, adding that it could also mean raising Metro Mobility fares higher than anticipated.

But Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee, said the Met Council's claim about transit service cuts are "exaggerated a bit," noting that the transportation budget is still a work in progress.

Eyeing fixes

Metro Mobility costs have risen about 65 percent in the past decade, mirroring an equal rise in ridership.

The Met Council hired a consultant to study what's driving that rise in ridership and forecast how it might shift in the future.

Last year was the first in a decade when expenses remained flat, however, after the Met Council rebid its contracts and changed its service model.

But ridership is expected to continue to climb with the aging population.

"People want to remain in their communities, but in some communities they can't easily walk to the grocery store or to a health care provider or to connect with other people," said Will Phillips, director for AARP Minnesota. "Transportation is oftentimes a link to their ability to remain healthy and not be isolated and stranded in their own homes."

To raise revenue, the Met Council might increase fares for all modes of transit, including Metro Mobility — a move also expected to dampen demand.

Metro Mobility passengers pay $3 or $4 for each ride, depending on the time of day. A fare hike of 50 cents or 75 cents could generate $11.6 million to $12.8 million over the next two years.

But council members are quick to point out that a fare increase by itself won't be enough.

The council supports Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal for a half-cent sales tax in the metro area for transit, but that idea seems unlikely, given the tenor at the Capitol.

Fares cover little of Metro Mobility's total expense; its subsidies exceed any other type of transit at more than $20 a ride.

Some agencies elsewhere in the country have reduced paratransit service areas to cut costs.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires transit agencies to provide a paratransit option like Metro Mobility within three-quarters of a mile of all-day local transit. That spans about 500 square miles in the Twin Cities, from Anoka to Shakopee and from Mound to Oakdale.

But in Minnesota, the Legislature in 2006 mandated service to an additional 600 square miles, an area that accounts for about 30 percent of the rides. A consultant examining Metro Mobility for the Met Council has found that among 11 peer cities, six provide service only to the minimum area required under federal law.

"I think that's a terrible idea," said Nicole Villavicencio, a disability rights advocate. "You can't offer services to someone and then take it back, after it's already been established."

Demand for service

Despite its budget woes, Metro Mobility remains an invaluable resource for many people who need to get around the Twin Cities.

"I am able to get out in the community and volunteer, and I wouldn't otherwise have been able to," said Patty Thorsen, a Metro Mobility rider who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and several other medical conditions.

The bulk of the registered riders are over 60, but the largest share of the rides are taken by people aged 45 to 74.

It is a door-through-door service, meaning drivers leave the vehicle to help people onto the van. About 25 to 30 percent of rides require use of the wheelchair lift.

Drivers are paid a starting wage of $14 an hour, and turnover is between 40 percent and 50 percent a year.

"The drivers are superbusy," said Paul Slattery, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 120, which represents about 450 Metro Mobility drivers who work for First Transit. "We're pushing our times all the time."

But some users are still less than satisfied with the service.

Mark Hughes, a Metro Mobility rider who hosts a cable access show called Disability Viewpoints, said the vehicles are frequently late and some rides take much longer than they should.

"As a citizen I'm concerned about what we're getting," Hughes said. "I'm not asking for a limousine, but it's less than the best."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

Twitter: @StribMoore