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Metro Transit and transit systems operated by suburban communities take riders to many places, but a little-known service operated by the Metropolitan Council provides rides to places normal buses and trains don't go.

Called Transit Link, the shared ride service is aimed at filling in the gaps, allowing those in areas where transit service is unavailable or is infrequent to catch a ride to medical appointments, their jobs, shopping malls and anywhere else they need to go. Small vans transport riders to and from their destinations from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays in most of the seven-county metro area.

Transit Link is far from a personal taxi service. As the name implies, it links riders with the bigger transportation system.

"We would not take you from Stillwater to St. Paul," said John Harper, manager of contracted services for the Met Council. "We would take you Maplewood Mall, then [you] transfer to a fixed route."

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

"Every trip is vetted to see if it can be done on a fixed route," Harper said. "It's meant to be a safety net in exurban areas."

Rides on Transit Link range from $3.50 to $4.50, with a 75-cent surcharge for trips of 15 miles or longer. Transit Link customers can transfer to a Metro Transit bus without paying a separate fare.

Transit Link debuted about 11 years ago to eliminate duplication of dial-a-ride services and provide a consistent program, including a single fare schedule and a central phone number for arranging a ride.

Before COVID-19 hit, the service was a lifeline for many at the Rogers Senior Center, said Jackie Riebel, the center's recreation and facilities coordinator. About once a week, a Transit Link bus took seniors who don't have cars to Ridgedale Mall or Walmart.

"Transit Link is an invaluable program that many riders depend on to bring them to a fixed route or Metro Mobility connection," said Paul Johnson with First Transit, one of the five contractors that provide the service. "Transit Link is the connection that bridges these gaps with the overall public transportation network."

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 those with qualifying disabilities. Ridership before COVID was about 2 million trips a year. It's now about 1 million.

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

"We are desperate for transportation in Rogers," she said.