A new dial-a-ride transit service that promises to give riders greater flexibility will start in March in southeast Ramsey County and all of Washington County.

The Metropolitan Council this week awarded a five-year contract to Midwest Paratransit Services Inc. for the new Transit Link service, which will be available to all residents who don't have handy access to public transit. It will use vans or minibuses to transport passengers and is different from Metro Mobility, meant for passengers with disabilities. That service won't change.

The contract with Midwest Paratransit comes as part of a metrowide restructuring in dial-a-ride services. Dial-a-ride will be new to some cities, such as St. Paul, but most areas will see more efficiency in existing service, said Gerri Sutton, the Met Council's assistant director of contracted transit services.

About 20 government and nonprofit organizations provide the metro area's dial-a-ride services, but eventually that will be reduced to five contracts under the Transit Link name, she said.

"The restructure of dial-a-ride services will provide much greater consistency regionwide," said Arlene McCarthy, the Met Council's director of transportation services. "Our ultimate goal is to avoid duplication with regular route transit so all communities have greater access to a transit option, either regular-route transit or Transit Link."

Midwest Paratransit will service all of Washington County and St. Paul, Gem Lake, Little Canada, Maplewood, North Oaks, North St. Paul, Vadnais Heights, White Bear Lake and White Bear Township in Ramsey County.

The contract will take effect March 1, although services might not begin until later that month. Transit Link will put 17 minibuses or vans on the road in both counties, Sutton said.

The east-metro contract is the second awarded for service under the new Transit Link name. Midwest Paratransit also received the contract to provide dial-a-ride service for 26 cities in Hennepin County. That contract will take effect in February.

New guidelines and fares took effect in Anoka, Carver and Scott counties Jan. 1. Those counties currently operate or contract for their own transit services and will continue to provide dial-a-ride services under the new structure.

Service is expected to begin in Dakota County May 1.

The Transit Link service, which will be phased in throughout the metro area from February to May, will simplify the dial-a-ride transit system for riders by eliminating multiple providers in some areas. Passengers also will be able to ride to destinations throughout the metro area instead of being limited to a provider's service area.

Prospective dial-a-ride passengers will be advised whether fixed-route transportation, such as buses or light-rail trains, would better serve their purposes depending on location, Sutton said. Streamlining services under Transit Link also should eliminate confusion and improve connections for riders, she said. "All the buses will look the same no matter what county," Sutton said.

More than 450,000 riders used dial-a-ride services in the seven-county metro area during 2008. The council provides about $5 million per year to dial-a-ride programs throughout the region, often augmented by local funding.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432