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Dakota County's jail transportation pilot ends

Brian Kopperud has picked up four different hitchhikers leaving the Dakota County Jail along Highway 55.

"I've been told that if I keep walking, someone will pick me up," he said one of the hitchikers told him.

When the county began giving inmates vouchers for rides as part of a pilot program in July, 69% used them, according to county figures. Though the pilot officially ended, enough of the transit cards are left over to provide rides until June officials estimate. In the meantime, county staff are working to find long-term solutions that they hope to present to the county's commissioners in May.

"I believe that the board really is serious at taking a look at what it would take to fill this gap," Kopperud said. "We're trying to be creative with those options, also be as cost effective [as possible.]"

One preferred option would be a "loop" between Hastings and other major transit centers.

Kopperud said he talked with one potential Dakota County-based vendor on April 22 about manning the loop. While tentative, they're exploring connecting Hastings to either Signal Hills Shopping Center's transit center in West St. Paul, Cedar Grove Station in Eagan or Apple Valley's transit hub, he said.

"That's our hope ... to give them a way to get to Hastings and to get back," Kopperud said.

The jail transit pilot ran from July to March and the county partnered with Transit Link, a public transportation service through the Metropolitan Council, and Smart Ride, a Hastings-based van service that was added partway through the pilot. Smart Ride was added to help offer more transit options in the latter part of the program and helped increase ridership, he said.

Throughout the pilot, 69% of the 504 people given transit cards used them and most went towards the Twin Cities. St. Paul was the destination 25% of the time, Minneapolis 17% and West St. Paul 15%, according to county figures.

While the pilot was effective for the county's transportation problem, county commissioners and staff didn't find a suitable long-term option, according to discussion on the pilot at an April 16 County Board meeting.

Transit Link staff told the county they are not interested in continuing the program with the county on an official basis due to feasibility issues. Smart Ride was open to continuing to work with the county and offset monthly insurance costs, but the costs were still too high for the county commissioners.

During the presentation, potential prices for a long-term solution through Smart Ride were floated at over $90 a ride on average.

"In essence, what came out of this is that we still need to do something, but we need to find a way to make it more cost effective," said Mike Slavik, Dakota County District 1 commissioner.

The county is currently studying transit options broadly, beyond just jail and court transit needs, in an eastern county transit study, Slavik said. He suggested that the results could help clarify potential long-term options for jail and court transportation options.

That study, however, isn't expected to be finished until winter, and implementing any outcomes from it would be even further off.

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