Less than two weeks after Transit Link buses hit the roads in Dakota County, local officials are watching carefully to see if former dial-a-ride customers are stranded at home.
The Metropolitan Council revamped the dial-a-ride services across the metro area this year to bring uniformity to what was previously a patchwork transportation system.
The new Transit Link network expands service to areas that previously had none and standardizes reservations, fares and ridership rules across the metro area.
But the switch, which limits rides for people who live near regular transit routes, has some worried that prior dial-a-ride customers, many of them senior citizens, are no longer eligible for the shuttle service.
"We are kind of waiting to see how it works out," Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said. "I'm really watching it for seniors."
Dial-a-ride has long been open to the general public, but seniors who lack other ways to get around were big users of the system in Dakota County.
Before the change, local nonprofit agency DARTS offered door-to-door dial-a-ride trips to people who reserved a spot on the small buses.
But new rules for Transit Link specify that the buses must serve areas where other transit is not available. In the winter, people who live within a quarter-mile of fixed bus routes are ineligible for rides. In the summer, the restriction extends to include anyone within a half-mile of fixed route transit service.
For DARTS, which won the Met Council contract to operate Transit Link, that means many former customers in the most populated areas of Dakota County are no longer eligible for rides.
DARTS' dial-a-ride service provided almost 43,000 rides to 1,468 people in 2009.
Of those, at least 90 percent of the customers from Burnsville, Apple Valley and Eagan live within a half-mile of regular bus routes. In West St. Paul and South St. Paul, all of the previous dial-a-ride clients fall within that distance of a regular transit route. In most cases, those people now have to walk to the bus stop.
Mark Hossier, president of DARTS, said one likely result is a bump in demand for Metro Mobility, the bus system that provides door-to-door service for people who are disabled.
"Those that have never been certified for ADA are actually talking about getting certified," he said.
People who use Transit Link will also need to ride regular buses or trains, because Transit Link is basically a shuttle to the nearest fixed-route transit. The old system, by contrast, would take riders to their destinations.
For example, a trip from a rural town such as Coates to the Mall of America might entail a Transit Link ride to the Apple Valley Transit station, where the rider would then hop on a bus that runs up Cedar Avenue.
"It provides more ridership on the regular route service and makes the regular route service more viable," said John Harper, director of contracted services with the Met Council.
Transfers are made at hubs, such as the Burnsville or Apple Valley transit stations, where people have access to shelter and designated waiting areas.
"We are not just dropping people off on the corner," Harper said.
Hossier said the Transit Link launch has so far been smooth, although riders have lots of questions. He encouraged anyone in need of a ride to call and work with a DARTS to figure out options.
"This is a case-by-case, ride-by-ride service," Hossier said.
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056