PRISM’s Dial-a-Ride earns St. Louis Park’s support

St. Louis Park is on board with continuing a dial-a-ride service.

The city has previously signed onto two six-month contracts with Golden Valley-based nonprofit People Responding In Social Ministry for the organization’s PRISM Express dial-a-ride service for St. Louis Park residents. The City Council has agreed to a one-year contract for 2013.

St. Louis Park agreed to the initial six-month contract as a way of determining how well the service worked and how the community received it, said Michele Schnitker, St. Louis Park’s housing supervisor and the city staff member assigned to study the program.

The city offered a six-month contract extension for 2012 because a variety of residents had been using the service, Schnitker said.

Her statistics indicate ridership fluctuated through much of 2012, ranging from 159 rides in February 2012 to 91 rides in September 2012.

“Although Prism has indicated that ridership will typically continue to grow each month as more residents hear about the service, the ridership thus far in St. Louis Park has remained relatively constant,” said a report Schnitker prepared in December.

Nevertheless, Schnitker said, “The Dial-A-Ride Service is showing consistent use.”

She added in an interview, “There are a lot of rides being provided, but we think the potential is much greater than that.”

Seniors in particular benefit from the program, she said. Additionally, PRISM Express provides a service without limitations some other transportation services have, such as a limit on the number of rides, age and income restrictions and accessibility issues for people reliant on heavy walkers or wheelchairs.

As in 2012, this year’s contract provides up to $20,000 in city funds to subsidize the dial-a-ride program. Funds from the Housing Rehab Fund are used to pay the city subsidy.

The cost per ride to the city varies because PRISM bills riders on a sliding fee based on household income. The city contributed an average of $4.82 per ride last year and did not reach the $20,000 maximum.

The city paid a maximum of $5.50 per one-way ride in 2012, but the new contract has a cap for the city of $5 per one-way ride. Riders pay between $3.50 and $10.98 each way based on income, but PRISM Express Director Courtney Whited said no one will be turned away due to inability to pay.

How it works

The service provides rides to locations in St. Louis Park, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal, New Hope, Brooklyn Center and Plymouth east of Interstate 494.

PRISM Express will pick riders up at their doors, but riders do not need to be disabled to ride.

Although the service in other cities only provides rides to individuals 60 years or older, the St. Louis Park contract specifies that PRISM Express will accept riders who are St. Louis Park residents of any age.

Although many rides are for medical appointments, rides may be scheduled for any reason, Whited said. Riders may carry up to three grocery bags and an additional carry-on item, like a case of soda or laundry detergent, onto the vehicle. Upon request, drivers will help carry items to a rider’s main door.

Riders do need to call three business days in advance due to the service’s popularity regionally, Whited said. Rides are offered 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.

Ridership typically increases by about 15 percent in the winter, Whited noted. The ice provides a significant deterrent to walking for many seniors.

“Seniors are afraid of that fall, which means they’re going to go into the nursing home,” she said.

PRISM Express drivers provide hands-on assistance for riders who need it, Whited said.

“Metro Transit doesn’t have that time or capacity to be hands-on, and a lot of seniors appreciate that,” she said.

Drivers often get to know riders, Whited said. That can be a comfort to family members.

“If (drivers) see something slightly different, we’re calling people involved with that so everything stays good and (riders) can remain in their home and stay independent,” Whited said. “So it’s more than just a ride.”

PRISM Express operates 10 buses that are wheelchair-accessible and two vans. Riders can specify whether they prefer a bus. The service also calls riders the day before their appointment to confirm times for pickup and for the return trip home. Riders can also call a phone number if they find they will have to delay their return trip.

Drivers do have a one-hour window for pickup times, but will call riders about 10 minutes before arriving, Schnitker said.

The service is going high-tech in its routing, moving toward tablet computers for drivers in buses that will provide instant route information, Whited said. Drivers also in contact with a dispatcher.

To schedule a ride, leave a message at any time on the PRISM Express reservations line at 763-529-1252. A person is assigned to answer the phone 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Messages should specify the rider’s name, phone number, date, time and location of appointment, whether the rider is new to PRISM Express and an estimated pickup time.