Washington County residents using public transit soon may benefit from a simplified service.

Changes are being made to the so-called dial-a-ride service, and the revamped Transit Link will begin in Washington County early next year, Met Council Chair Peter Bell said at a recent Woodbury meeting.

The service provides curbside van or bus service for people in the seven-county Twin Cities area who do not live near regular public bus routes.

The dial-a-ride program logged some 88,879 rides in Washington County last year.

But the program needed changes, Bell said. Across the Twin Cities, there was overlapping service, where multiple dial-a-ride providers were serving the same area, or where dial-a-ride buses were working areas served by regular Metro Transit bus routes while other parts of the metro had no public transit. Bell called the old model a "patchwork" of providers and areas served.

Service in Washington County is confusing. The Met Council-administered dial-a-ride program has served all of the southern half of the county, but in three separate zones, and some of that service duplicated transportation provided by Human Services Inc., which was open to the public but generally used by seniors and people with disabilities.

Under the new Transit Link, which will debut in Washington County in March 2010, the Met Council will contract with one transportation company to provide service throughout the county and an eastern portion of Ramsey County. Users will reserve a ride through just one phone number; previously there were multiple phone numbers tied to certain service areas.

"It's making it more understandable and easier to use," said John Harper, Met Council's contracted transit services supervisor.

Fares will be charged by distance traveled -- a one-way ride of less than 10 miles is $2.25 -- and operation times will be uniform. Rides are reserved in advance.

Most dial-a-ride trips are short distances, said Arlene McCarthy, Met Council's metropolitan transportation services director.

The service is important, particularly for low-income residents who do not have a car but need to get to work or to appointments, said Dan Papin, Washington County community services director.

As it rolls out Transit Link, Met Council is spending more on the service. The $4.5 million budget for the seven-county program will grow by $1 million, with the addition of funds meant for rural transit. Dial-a-ride service qualifies because Twin Cities counties still contain rural areas, Bell said.

"It's the right decision," he said of dial-a-ride changes, while speaking to east metro elected officials Nov. 4. "I think we're doing it the right way."

Washington County is among four Twin Cities-area counties that contracts with the Met Council to operate dial-a-ride services.

Transit Link is different from Metro Mobility, which provides bus service to people with physical disabilities or other conditions.