Washington County seeks better, easier resources for transit-dependent people


A Metro Mobility bus waited to pick up a passenger on Seventh Avenue in North St. Paul. Washington County is looking for funding to help improve public transportation after a study showed the need for clearer mobility options of older adults, people with disabilities and others with specialized transit needs. (Amy Felegy/Review)

The regular Metro Transit Line, seen here in yellow, may get some additions after a study showed the need for increased services. (courtesy Metro Transit)

Washington County is asking the Minnesota Department of Transportation for $400,000 to set up a “one-stop shop” with easily-accessible public transit information, the county’s board of commissioners announced July 16. 

The request comes after a study proved the need for clearer mobility options for older adults, people with disabilities and others with specialized transit needs.

The extensive final report said Washington County’s current transit service and information is “somewhat piecemeal” and lacks coherence, making it difficult for transit-dependent people to use and understand their travel options. 

In 2016 and 2017, MnDOT gave Washington County funding for a Transit Needs Study, which identified what transit options already exist, problems associated with them and what priorities need to be addressed. 

The funding would grow existing services and add new ones, offer personalized travel information and hire staff to link residents with transportation resources — which transit experts say can be dysfunctional. 

County Mobility Coordinator Sheila Holbrook-White said access to employment, medical appointments and the region in general proved to be major issues for people with specialized transportation needs. On top of that, a gap in knowledge of how services work is a big problem, too.

“Without a doubt there are limits to the options, but a lot of that is also people are not aware of what does exist,” Holbrook-White said. “Then add to that how to use it, catch it, how much it costs ...”

Currently, many Washington County transit services are run by a long list of non-government agencies that each operate independently, which can make them confusing to navigate. The MnDOT funding would allow the county to hire a point-person to help guide people from point A to B more easily.

“Rather than having somebody who says to you, ‘Here are 86 options, let me send you the list and you can make all the phone calls,’” Holbrook-White said, “I’m only going to give you options that you are eligible for, rather than hope that you have the means and ability to follow through.”

The overload and breadth of service information can be confusing — and the services themselves aren’t always meeting the community’s needs, either.

 

Current services and shortcomings 

As far as current transit options go, not all Washington County neighborhoods have regular fixed-route buses. The county has 33 cities and townships. Of them, only 13 have routes that run during peak traffic hours, the county report said.

Mike Greenbaum, executive director of White Bear Lake nonprofit transportation service Newtrax, said mobility is not a simple issue — especially for those with disabilities. Varying levels of independence, safety and reliability make public transportation more complex and scarce than people realize, he said.

“There continues to be a void in affordable and regular options for people that have mobility challenges,” Greenbaum said. 

Newtrax has 45 vehicles to transport people for six or seven hours every day, he said. Despite this, not everyone’s needs are met. For example, if just one person needs a ride to the doctor, taking a 15-passenger van just isn’t efficient.

The county’s public transit largely targets commuters riding to jobs outside the county, the study said, and not people who rely on transit for medical visits, social gatherings, grocery store trips, the gym or out-of-the-house activities other than work. 

Transportation is a multilayer issue for older adults, people with disabilities, youth, veterans, people in poverty, those without cars and people who don’t speak fluent English.

Metro Mobility, a transit system for people with disabilities or health conditions, has a limited fixed-route network and is more expensive to ride than Metro Transit buses. This is especially true for those without Medical Assistance or those who don’t know their insurance even covers transportation, Holbrook-White said.

For those paying full price for accessible transit, rides can add up. Regular-route Metro Transit bus fares cost between $2.50 and $3.25. Metro Mobility fares cost between $3.50 to $4.50, and trips more than 15 miles outside its service area can cost up to $5.25.

Transit Link, a rideshare service operating outside regular routes, and Metro Mobility both offer door-to-door and door-through-door transportation. But along with cost, these services aren’t available to people if they live outside a service area, need a ride outside limited hours of availability, or cannot schedule a ride in advance

Minnesota Transportation Programs, which provides free non-emergency medical transportation, said those who qualify for Medical Assistance can apply for cab cards, transportation assistance programs and reduced-fare or free bus passes through a handful of programs throughout the metro. 

Even then, users often have to schedule rides in advance and must be traveling to a medical appointment, excluding other trips to the grocery store, social gatherings, work or elsewhere.

Darlene Scott, president and CEO of nonprofit The Phoenix Residence, said access to transportation isn’t a new problem in Washington County and some challenges aren’t going away for people living with a disability.

“As more and more people are moving into a home of their own, there needs to be some way to try and help them live in the city,” Scott said. The Phoenix Residence offers support services to those with disabilities and helps them find accessible housing, like at its Maplewood group home.

Scott said traveling to and from employment, housing and health care visits prove to be a hurdle for many people living with a disability. Spreading awareness of existing resources, she said, might be key to helping people navigate them.

That’s exactly what the county plans to do with the requested $400,000 of funding from MnDOT. 

The county would be responsible for chipping in $80,000 of it, and Holbrook-White said MnDOT is expected to approve or deny the grant in August.

 

Suggestions moving forward

Some 75 interest groups proposed solutions to the transportation issues above. Remedies include a condensed information resource for transit options both online and on paper, and more coordination between private transportation companies.

Another suggestion is to explore public ridesharing programs like Uber and Lyft, get county-owned vehicles for veterans, and implement local and special event circulator services in Washington County suburbs.

 

–Amy Felegy can be reached at afelegy@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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