Sure, Plymouth has good housing, nice people and plentiful parks, but Sam Jasmine moved there for the Dial-A-Ride.

"I had heard that it was, by far, above and beyond other communities," she said.

Jasmine is visually impaired and counts on the curb-to-curb bus service. But just months after moving in, she's concerned that her reason for relocating could be slipping away.

Plymouth is considering cutting hours and upping fares for its heavily subsidized Dial-A-Ride, which is open to anyone but generally used by the elderly, poor and disabled.

At recent City Council work session, some city officials advocated eliminating the program and diverting its funding to the city's busy commuter buses. Getting rid of the service could save about $950,000 a year, according to a staff report.

The changes on the table now -- including possibly canceling all Saturday rides and increasing fares by $1.50 a trip -- are "like taking a spoonful of water out of the Pacific Ocean," said Council Member Tim Bildsoe.

"It doesn't really mean a lot to raise fares because at the end of the day, it's not an efficient service," he said. "Eventually, I'd like to see these monies allocated to something that's successful."

The current $2 fare made up only a small portion of the $17 average cost per ride during 2007, which is rising with higher fuel costs. The remaining $15 came from Plymouth's share of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, which is lagging.

But transportation and elderly advocates warn that senior citizens and others rely upon the rides and that if Plymouth doesn't provide the service, they won't be able to get to work, appointments or social outings.

And, the advocates say, only some of the people who use Dial-A-Ride have other transit options, and those services also are raising fares. They include Metro Mobility, an area-wide transit service for people with disabilities and a certification from their doctor.

"Most of these people, they're handicapped. Not to the extent that they'd take Metro Mobility, but to the extent that they can't walk a couple blocks to the bus," said Patty Doten, a member of the Plymouth Advisory Committee on Transit, or PACT.

Alternative plans

PACT has recommended eliminating Saturday service, which would save about $42,500 a year, according to a staff report. Increasing the fare from $2 to $3.50 would add $75,000 more in annual revenue.

Other transportation providers have considered similar steps. This month, the Metropolitan Council voted to raise fares for Metro Mobility by 50 cents, to $4 during rush hour and $3 at off-peak times.

And Maple Grove -- which, like Plymouth, runs its own transit service -- is in the "very preliminary" stages of discussing whether to raise its fare slightly, said City Administrator Al Madsen. At $1.75 per trip, it could be the cheapest government-run program in the metro area.

The Wayzata-based nonprofit Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners operates a volunteer driver program, offering rides for free to those who need them.

In the past, shifts in Plymouth's Dial-A-Ride program have affected the nonprofit's program, said Susan Fetterer, director of volunteer services. When Plymouth's Dial-A-Ride program was recently strained and not everyone was able to get a ride, the number of people who called the nonprofit to get to English and GED classes doubled, she said.

"It has had a huge impact on our driver program -- just a huge impact," Fetterer said.

Weighing the efficiency

Last year, Plymouth's Dial-A-Ride gave about 65,000 rides, which users schedule ahead of time. The service's mini-buses travel to anywhere in Plymouth, as well as shopping and medical centers just outside the city, such as Ridgedale in Minnetonka.

According to a recent survey of 117 customers, 79 percent used Dial-A-Ride at least once a week, 62 percent to get to work. While 72 to 85 percent of those surveyed got rides on weekdays, only 15 percent used the service on Saturdays.

The Metropolitan Council sets standards to evaluate such programs' "productivity and efficiency," and Plymouth's Dial-A-Ride meets one of them.

In the first half of this year, it averaged 3.08 to 3.33 passengers per hour, more than the three-passengers-per-hour standard. But its subsidy-per-passenger is high and climbing -- in June, it was $16.87 per passenger -- and the city hopes to lower it with the fare increase.

Meanwhile, there's a "huge demand" for more Metrolink buses, which carry commuters to and from downtown Minneapolis during rush hour, said Sarah Hellekson, the city's transit and solid waste manager. With more funding, that service could be further expanded into the northwest area of the city.

Bildsoe said that adding to Metrolink would "get more bang for our tax money ... and maybe even serve more people in the city."

"It's not always about the money," Hellekson responded. "It's also about providing a service."

After deciding on fares and service days in the coming months, the City Council likely will look at the general merits and drawbacks of Dial-A-Ride in January.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168