Hastings residents who lack transportation can’t use that as an excuse for being late to court or not showing up at all. It also won’t be an excuse for missing meetings with social workers, probation officers or counselors who can help them find jobs.

That’s because Dakota County is offering them free rides.

As part of a six-month $60,000 pilot launched in the fall, DakotaLink provides free bus rides to those who need to get to public health appointments and use other county services but may not have any way to get there, said Robyn Bernardy, Dakota County’s transportation coordinator.

Hastings, in the far southeastern metro, has few public transportation options.

The city runs a bus on Tuesdays serving senior centers and popular shopping destinations for a few hours. Residents needing transportation at other times can also use the Met Council’s dial-a-ride service, but trips must be reserved in advance.

That leaves a big gap, especially for those without a car, Bernardy said.

“A lot of people were hitchhiking to get to transit,” she said. “Or waiting for hours to get rides.”

DakotaLink was started because “we were looking for a way to get people without transportation to and from court,” Bernardy said. But it expanded to include all county services.

A 16-passenger school bus with the green DakotaLink logo makes three loops every weekday. Drivers will ask riders where they are headed, but all trips begin at the Judicial Center in Hastings and include stops at the Cedar Grove Transit Station in Apple Valley and the Signal Hills Shopping Center in West St. Paul before returning to Hastings.

DakotaLink riders can get a $5 Go-To card to connect with other regular bus routes to complete their trips from those locations.

Last month, 115 people used DakotaLink. Riders have included inmates released from jail, family members accompanying loved ones to court, and those going to dental appointments and the county’s career center.

“We are hearing that they are thankful for the option,” Bernardy said. “Now they don’t have to beg for a ride.”

The hope is that more people will use the bus as word spreads. In January, the county will hold three ride-alongs for case managers, court officials and staff members to introduce them to DakotaLink so they can tell their clients about it, Bernardy said.

“It’s hard to tell people about options if they don’t ride them,” Bernardy said.

Free rides for New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is one of the most dangerous nights to be driving, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Last year police made 111 DWI arrests statewide from New Year’s Eve night through the early hours of New Year’s Day, the agency said.

Revelers have an alternative, said Metro Transit General Manager Wes Kooistra — taking the bus or train.

“Metro Transit’s bus and train operators are all proud to be your designated drivers this New Year’s Eve,” Kooistra said.

Miller Lite Free Rides will provide no-cost rides on all Metro Transit buses and light-rail and Northstar trains from 6 p.m. Tuesday until 3 a.m. Wednesday. Fares also will be waived on Minnesota Valley Transit Authority and Anoka County Traveler buses.

The program has provided more than 1.4 million free rides since it began locally in 2011.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.