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With too many passengers for the drivers on hand, the Metropolitan Council has launched a pilot program that lets Metro Mobility customers ride regular-route buses and light-rail trains at no cost.

The Free Fare Pilot, which was included in the transportation bill passed by the Legislature this year, is aimed at giving those who use Metro Mobility another transportation option while reducing demand on the door-to-door service that's poised to reach the 2 million-ride mark this year.

"We know it won't be for everybody, but this can be good for lots of riders for some trips at some times," said Charles Carlson, executive director of the Met Council's Metropolitan Transportation Services Division.

The program was announced this fall during in-person and online meetings with riders, and will be highlighted in a Met Council newsletter distributed to riders this week.

Metro Mobility provided more than 2.4 million rides in 2019, the most in its history. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic wane, riders are making trips they previously hadn't and returning in near-record numbers this year.

That's put stress on the service which, like other transit modes, has seen driver shortages, said Carlson, adding that the pilot can offer riders flexibility and freedom.

"We needed to find ways beyond traditional Metro Mobility so customers can have both independent, fast and reliable transportation, and preserve system capacity," he said.

Metro Mobility riders currently pay $3.50 per ride during nonpeak times and $4.50 during rush hours. The pilot program, which will be paid for with revenue collected through the new transportation sales tax enacted in October, will run through the end of 2024.

It's not yet known how many Metro Mobility customers have taken advantage of the free rides in the few months the pilot has been active. But the potential is great; the service has nearly 35,000 registered riders, and about 18,300 took Metro Mobility at least once in the past year, according to Met Council.

Anecdotally, Carlson said he thinks people are taking advantage of the program. But the Met Council is collecting data and will report ridership numbers early next year.

To take the free rides, you must be registered with Metro Mobility and show your card when boarding buses or trains. Riders can take any bus or train in the seven-county metro area operated by Metro Transit, Maple Grove Transit, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, Plymouth Metrolink or SouthWest Transit.

Carlson said the Met Council expects demand for Metro Mobility to grow in the coming years as the metro area's population ages and more people need a way to get to work, medical appointments, shopping and social outings.

For many already enrolled, Metro Mobility "is a lifeline," he said, underscoring the need to provide additional transportation options.

In another pilot program, the Met Council has expanded its on-demand taxi service for Metro Mobility users. The service allows riders to book cab trips during the hours Metro Mobility doesn't operate in their locations, provided the trips are booked a few days in advance. Riders pay the first $5 for a cab, the Met Council pays the next $20, and riders pay the amount above that.

The taxi service is now available 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. It doesn't allow riders to schedule a trip using Lyft or Uber, though that could happen in the future, Carlson said.