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County board decides against taking over Dial-A-Ride

The Washington County Board of Commissioners made it clear that the county is not in the business of operating transit services when it voted 5-0 Tuesday, April 14 to endorse a Metropolitan Council option to continue to allow Metro Transit to manage Dial-A-Ride services in the county.

Commissioners chose not to endorse an option Metro Transit offered to the county which would have placed the county in a position to directly operate or manage Dial-A-Ride services within the county.

The county's comprehensive plan states that the county does not operate transit systems, said Washington County Public Works director Don Theisen.

"At this time, we don't even have the staff resources to manage the Dial-A-Ride services," Theisen said.

The commissioners' action means continuation of the current service  of six to seven buses in daily operation under contract between the Metropolitan Council and Human Services, Inc.

Dial-A-Ride is a curb-to-curb minibus or van service that operates within certain communities within the county. It is shared-ride service, which must be reserved in advance. Dial-A-Ride service is not intended for commuters.

The Met Council recently approved a plan to restructure the region's Dial-A-Ride service and under the restructuring plan, all existing Dial-A-Ride contracts will be reevaluated and regional operating funds will be reallocated to each of the seven counties based on a new distribution formula, wrote Wayne Sandberg, Washington County deputy public works director.

Also, as a part of the restructuring Washington County will assign two representatives to a coordination advisory committee, which will oversee the restructuring of the Dial-A-Ride services plan. The representatives are likely to be staff in the county's public works and public health and environment departments.

Commissioner Dennis Hegberg said he supports the Met Council's restructuring of the Dial-A-Ride system with a more integrated approach.

"It makes sense to have a more integrated system, because all I have heard is complaints about that aspect of the service," Hegberg said.

During the April 14 meeting commissioners discussed the possibility of cutting off funding for the Forest Lake commuter bus services the county is paying for via its share of a five-county transit sales tax.

Late last year the county board voted to allocate a portion of its County Transit Improvement Board transit sale tax funds to continuation of commuter bus routes out of Forest Lake into Minneapolis. The bus routes were originally established and paid for via federal funding after the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis in August of 2007, but the funds ran out last year upon completion of the bridge. The county board voted to partially fund continuation of the route through 2009 with the condition that the city of Forest Lake would join the metropolitan transit taxing district, which would then allow Metro Transit to operate the service. The county is using about $233,000 of its transit improvement funding to pay for the 2009 bus service from Forest Lake to Minneapolis.

Earlier this month, Forest Lake city officials began to hedge on whether to vote to enter the transit taxing district. They delayed an April 8 vote until April 27.

County commissioners were clear at their April 14 meeting that if Forest Lake does not enter the transit taxing district, the county will withdraw its funding for the bus service to Minneapolis.

"There will be consequences if they choose not to enter the transit taxing district," said commissioner Gary Kriesel. "They have to be participating; we are not just going to give them a free ride."