Balancing act: Stabilizing paratransit costs
As recently as 15 years ago, disabled residents in many communities had few guarantees that they could get to and from work, doctors’ offices or shopping malls when they needed. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) aimed to change that by requiring transit agencies with fixed-route service to provide complementary paratransit programs.
According to the ADA, paratransit programs must ensure that disabled residents who cannot get to a bus stop or cannot use conventional public transportation still have some means of getting to and from daily tasks. Minimum requirements for paratransit services include providing curb-to-curb pick up and drop off, allowing passengers to make appointments for rides, and keeping those appointments within a reasonable window of time.
Public transit agencies are finding it difficult to provide paratransit services that do not overwhelm their budgets. As ridership increases each year, agencies are searching for ways to keep costs in check. They are tightening qualifications for riders, limiting reservations, contracting with private fleet owners, and integrating technology into scheduling and dispatching operations.
Court challenges rise
Over the past few years, cities and counties have been challenged in court by individuals and advocacy groups to meet minimum requirements of the ADA. Complaints of spotty, unreliable and inflexible service have resulted in court-ordered fines and have prompted transit agencies to address deficient service.
For example, Philadelphia’s paratransit service, which falls under the auspices of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), has been sued several times over issues related to ADA. By law, SEPTA, or any other local transit system with fixed-route bus service, must provide a paratransit ride to any disabled resident calling at least one business day in advance of the requested ride. Additionally, the agency must schedule the ride within one hour of the requested pickup time. However, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, for the 13 months ending in May 2000, SEPTA missed that mark repeatedly, stranding an average of 74 people a day.
The service had been so poor that, when Suzanne Bacal — a disabled person who had battled for years with SEPTA — passed away last year, her mother dismissed Jewish customs and delayed burial for three days to accommodate her daughter’s friends, many of whom are disabled. Because many of the friends are dependent on SEPTA’s erratic paratransit service, she thought they might not be able to schedule a ride on one day’s notice, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Last year, SEPTA was ordered by a U.S. District Court to comply with ADA regulations and was threatened with fines as high as $60,000 per month. To meet the court’s challenge, SEPTA increased paratransit spending by $5 million this year to $24 million. It also boosted its fleet by approximately 200 vans and sedans.
The gatekeeper approach
Transit agencies experiencing similar service problems and large price tags for correction have begun evaluating their ridership policies and tightening eligibility requirements for passengers. They also are stepping up efforts to encourage disabled residents to take fixed-route buses and trains.
ADA paratransit is intended as a safety net only for those who cannot use conventional fixed-route transit. Determining whether a potential rider’s disability prevents him from using mass transit can be a powerful tactic in controlling costs, says David Koffman, principal associate for San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.
When the ADA was passed in 1990, most transit systems based paratransit eligibility decisions on paper applications, supplemented by doctor verification. Today, many systems are turning to more sophisticated methods that use in-person interviews to determine whether applicants are capable of using conventional public transportation.
For example, King County, Wash., revised its application form in 2001 to clarify that a prospective paratransit client must be “unable to use fixed-route service, not that it’s difficult to use,” says Park Woodworth, manager of paratransit/ride share operations for King County Metro Transit. The county also increased the percentage of required in-person visits for physical and cognitive evaluations from 10 percent of all applicants to 30 percent.
Although the $200 physical and cognitive evaluations are more expensive than paper applications, reduced ridership offsets their costs. “We are receiving fewer applications because people are pre-screening themselves,” Woodworth says.
Besides tightening ridership policies, transit agencies are improving travel instruction programs to divert passengers from paratransit to regular route service. For example, Metro Mobility, the paratransit service for Minneapolis-St. Paul, has begun providing transit instruction classes for disabled residents through the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. The classes educate residents about routes and specially equipped transit facilities and vehicles to help them become comfortable using fixed-route services.
“We don’t want to cut [the disabled] off,” says Dave Jacobson, general manager for Metro Mobility. “But for those able and willing to [ride fixed-route buses], we encourage those means.”
Law allows local options
In addition to restricting ridership, agencies are limiting the amount of time passengers have to make advance reservations for rides. Early ADA regulations mandated that passengers be allowed to reserve rides one business day to 14 days in advance. In 1996 the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) altered the mandate and allowed each jurisdiction to decide whether to allow passengers to make reservations more than one day in advance.
Many systems are opting for shorter advance reservation windows to reduce the administrative costs of handling cancellations and to reduce the rates of missed rides. The more time passengers have to make reservations, the more convenient it is for clients, but “it increases the frequency of cancellations and no-shows, leading to less efficient service,” Koffman says.
Some transit agencies have adopted subscription policies, or standing order reservations, to cut costs. “While ADA regulations do not require it, most systems allow it as a convenience to the rider,” Koffman says, adding that agencies see subscriptions as a productivity booster as well. “It saves effort, and it optimizes vehicle scheduling,” he notes.
To further reduce costs, King County encourages group shopping trips for paratransit passengers by providing premium services such as carrying packages and assisting passengers from door-to-door. By picking up several passengers in one trip and delivering them to the same destination, the county improves efficiency, and it saves money on fuel and staff time.
For individual trips, the King County Council passed an ordinance in 1999 structured to guarantee only minimum federal requirements. For example, the county accepts only one-day advance reservations and provides only curb-to-curb service for its ADA paratransit services. As a result, passengers on those trips must pay extra for premium services.
The ordinance and the option of charging for premium services have garnered King County large savings. In 2000, the county projected a paratransit budget of $31 million, but, after implementing the ordinance, the county’s service came in under budget at $28 million. Projected costs for 2003 are $31.3 million; before the ordinance was passed, the budget was projected to be $43 million.
Cabs supplement service
Other cities have contracted with private fleet operators to help contain costs. Raleigh, N.C.’s paratransit program, Accessible Raleigh Transportation (ART), provides rides for disabled residents through agreements with taxi companies. Any taxi company with more than six cabs is required to provide rides for disabled residents and receives reimbursement for the rides. Twenty livery companies participate in the plan.
ART is a two-tiered program that provides transportation for disabled residents within city limits. Tier 1 provides cab reimbursement service to all eligible riders. Passengers call the taxi companies to schedule their rides and use coupons from the city that cover 52 percent of their costs.
Tier 2 service is available for passengers who are going to and from locations that are served by fixed-route buses but who cannot access the vehicles or facilities. Passengers pay $1.50 one way and schedule those trips with the city, which checks the passengers’ eligibility for the service and dispatches taxis.
The program allows greater flexibility for riders, yet it does not cost the city more than the usual cost for a paratransit ride, says Todd Allen, senior transit planner for Raleigh. While the taxi service allows the private livery companies to make a profit, it saves the city administrative and dispatch service costs.
Metro Mobility also has begun using taxis to supplement its regular paratransit service. The Taxi Ticket reimbursement program permits regular riders that are denied a paratransit ride because of overcapacity to take a cab and get reimbursed up to $18 — a cost comparable to that of a regular paratransit ride.
For transit agencies that operate their own paratransit vehicles, technology is helping contain administrative and fleet costs. Mobile data terminals (MDTs) in vehicles allow dispatchers to send data messages to drivers to reflect on-the-spot schedule changes.
King County recently completed a pilot test of 30 MDTs and is installing MDTs in its entire paratransit fleet of 280 vehicles. Through an automated vehicle locator/global positioning satellite mapping feature, the county’s system automatically alerts drivers if they have driven past their specified pick-up addresses.
Eventually, the county plans to expand the MDTs with an interactive voice response system that will generate an automatic telephone notice to passengers that a van is about to arrive. That service will avoid what Woodworth calls the “circular problem,” whereby a rider leaves the pick-up area to inquire about a late ride, the bus arrives and the passenger misses it.
The county also is considering installing an automated touch-tone telephone system. The system would allow passengers to make reservations, check on previous reservations or cancel a ride, freeing up or reducing the number of required call center personnel.
Back to basics
Meeting ADA paratransit requirements is a challenging, expensive endeavor. Scheduling rides in a cost-effective, timely manner is a requirement most local governments struggle with continually. Of late, transit agencies have come under fire in the courts, and they must comply with the minimum standards or face heavy fines.
Meeting minimum standards may be the key to keeping costs low. First and foremost, if services are limited to those who truly qualify, federal requirements for service can be met, and extra services can be added as budgets allow.
“The human reaction is to do it all,” says Woodworth, but consequently “we weren’t doing it well.” As a result, King County, like many other local governments, reorganized its paratransit services to meet requirements to serve disabled residents in a cost-effective manner. “We promise less, but we do a better job in doing what we promised,” Woodworth says.
Donna Rogers is a Huntington, N.Y.-based freelance writer.
FTA offers free paratransit course
The Federal Transit Administration offers a two-day course, entitled “Managing the Cost of ADA Paratransit,” through the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University. The course addresses management, planning and service delivery methods that public transit agencies can use to comply with the paratransit requirements of the ADA while retaining control of budgets.
The course, which is held in various cities throughout the year, is free to employees of federal, state and local government, and private non-profit transit operators. For more information, visit www.ntionline.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (732) 932-1700.