No bus service? Transit Link fills transportation gaps

Subway and transit systems operated by suburban communities take riders to many places, but a little-known service operated by the Metropolitan Council offers trips to places normal buses and trains don’t go.

Called Transit Link, the shared transportation service aims to fill the gaps, allowing those in areas where public transit service is unavailable or infrequent to travel to medical appointments, at work, shopping malls and wherever they need to go. Small vans transport passengers to and from their destinations from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays in most metropolitan areas of the seven counties.

Transit Link is far from being a personal taxi service. As its name suggests, it connects riders to the larger transportation system.

“We wouldn’t take you from Stillwater to St. Paul,” said John Harper, contract services manager for the Met Council. “We would take you to the Maplewood Mall and then [you] transfer to a fixed route.”

In some cases, small vans will take passengers door to door, but only in cases where buses or trains do not serve one or both destinations. A trip from the Maplewood Mall to the White Bear Lake Town Hall would be an example of a door-to-door trip.

“Each trip is checked to see if it can be done on a fixed route,” Harper said. “It’s supposed to be a safety net in peri-urban areas.”

Rides on Transit Link range from $3.50 to $4.50, with an additional 75 cents for rides of 15 miles or more. Transit Link customers can transfer to a Metro Transit bus without paying a separate fare.

Transit Link started around 11 years ago to eliminate duplication of call-on-demand services and provide a consistent program, including a single rate schedule and a central phone number for arranging a ride.

Before COVID-19 hit, service was a lifeline for many people at Rogers Senior Center, said Jackie Riebel, the center’s recreation and facilities coordinator. About once a week a Transit Link bus takes seniors without cars to Ridgedale Mall or Walmart.

“Transit Link is an invaluable program that many riders rely on to get them to a fixed route or Metro Mobility connection,” said Paul Johnson of First Transit, one of five contractors providing the service. “Transit Link is the connection that bridges these gaps with the entire public transit system.”

The Met Council spends about $7 million to run Transit Link, about a tenth of what it spends on Metro Mobility, the door-to-door service for people with disabilities. Pre-COVID ridership was approximately 2 million trips per year. It is now around 1 million.

The service, like others, has struggled to recruit and retain enough drivers. The Met Council on Feb. 1 will raise the starting salary from $17.50 to $20 to get more people behind the wheel. Riebel hopes this helps.

“We desperately need transportation in Rogers,” she said.

Melvin Z. Madore