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In most lines of work, customer growth is considered a good thing. In the world of transit --specifically, transit service for the disabled -- it's a serious challenge.
Across the country, transit systems are taking steps to slow the increasing number of passengers who use paratransit, the federally-mandated service they’re required to provide for disabled customers who are unable to use traditional buses and rail.
It’s a trend worth paying attention to, as it may be a harbinger of things to come: Experts say a growing number of baby boomers will rely on transit -- and in some cases paratransit -- to move around in the not-too-distant future. And that could put even more strain on paratransit systems that are struggling with the costly mandate.
Nationwide, transit agencies are trying to find creative ways to reduce their expenses by steering people who would ordinarily use paratransit shared-ride vans towards more traditional service.
- In Riverside, Calif. -- where paratransit serves 4 percent of the system's riders but eats up 18 percent of the budget -- officials are teaching people with cognitive disabilities to read bus schedules.
- In Portland -- where TriMet spends almost 10 percent of its operating budget on 1 percent of its riders -- paratransit now serves a smaller area and fares have increased from $1.85 to $2.15.
- Transit officials in Washington, D.C. have made an offer to the disabled: if they’ll ditch the expensive door-to-door service, they can ride buses and subways for free.
“In paratransit, we don’t celebrate our demand skyrocketing,” says Christian Kent, assistant general manager of access service at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “We got to a place a few years ago where our board was making decisions about its budget, and the word ‘unsustainable’ was used for the first time.”
ADA boosts paratransit ridership
The Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 law, put all public transit systems into the paratransit business. The law didn’t give them extra funding, but it did force them to provide a service that’s expensive, costing big city transit agencies an average of $34 per ride, according to 2010 American Public Transportation Association report.
In addition to being more expensive than typical transit service, it’s also growing faster. From 2000 to 2010, the number of “demand-response” trips -- namely, paratransit -- increased about 80 percent. Overall, transit trips increased by about 10 percent in that time, says Art Guzzetti, the vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation association.
Those two dynamics have created a service that represents a disproportionately large part of transit agency budgets. Even though paratransit customers represent about 1.9 percent of all transit riders, the service eats up about 13.7 percent of transit agencies’ costs, says Guzzetti.
And because paratransit programs are so heavily subsidized, transit agencies face a frustrating paradox: if they make the service more convenient, they’ll attract more customers. And if they attract more customers, they’ll lose more money. So today, much of the work of the officials working in the field of paratransit is to persuade riders not to use the service.
“[I]f you’re being good stewards of your taxpayer dollars, you try to put them in check,” says Guzzetti. “You don’t want to be providing more of those trips than you need to be.”
Transit costs vs paratransit costs
Transit agencies have taken a variety of steps to try to turn the tide. In Washington, the MetroAccess paratransit service carries about 2.3 million passengers annually. From 2005 to 2011, ridership on the service increased by about 20 percent annually, Kent says. That number is staggeringly high; traditionally, transit advocates are thrilled at a 1 or 2 percent increase in overall ridership.
That growth isn’t just fast. It’s expensive. MetroAccess has an operating budget of $118 million, according to the proposed FY 2013 budget. That means 7.5 percent of the system's operating budget pays for less than 1 percent of its trip.
As transit agencies craft their operations budgets, their costs typically outweigh revenue. In other words, the cost of a ticket doesn’t really pay for the cost of a ride. In the case of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the shortfall is closed with a subsidy paid by the local governments served by Metro.
For rail, the subsidy costs about 76 cents per ride, according to the proposed FY 2013 budget. For MetroAccess, that subsidy averages about $50.45 per passenger. Governments pay more than 93 percent of the costs of MetroAccess.
Put another way: the subsidy local governments pay to move one MetroAccess customers could move 65 rail customers.
Transit systems shifting costs
One technique that many transit agencies have started to embrace, including WMATA, is offering free rides on bus and rail to the disabled. Paratransit is so heavily subsidized that it’s less-expensive for the government to give away a free bus or subway ride than to provide paratransit service, even when they charge customers.
WMATA has also started training the disabled to use traditional bus and rail service, in hopes of facilitating that transition, and it's changed the way it evaluates customer eligibility for the paratransit program. Those changes mean the agency’s preliminary FY 2013 budget projects paratransit ridership to be lower than it was in FY 2010.
But it’s unclear whether all the reforms being pursued by WMATA and others will be enough to stave off a surge in paratransit demand as a result of aging seniors, as people over the age of 65 represent a disproportionately large percentage of the disabled population.
Demand for ADA paratransit use is expected to increase by nearly 12 percent for the under-65 population through 2030, according to the APTA report. But for those over 65, the increase will be more than 75 percent.
The report goes on to project that the operating funds needed to provide ADA paratransit for seniors will increase from nearly $1.7 billion annually in 2010 to more than $.2.9 billion annually in 2030.
Uncomfortable battles for transit dollars could break out, since paratransit competes with traditional bus and rail for precious budgetary dollars. "It is putting a strain on total resources and what we have available for all other modes," MBTA General Manager Jon Davis said last year.
In Boston, the cost of the paratransit service, called The Ride, has increased nearly 400 percent in the last decade. Author Edward Glaeser, writing in a Boston Globe column earlier this year, called paratransit an unfunded federal mandate that causes additional pressure on already cash-strapped transit agencies.
Glaeser’s solution: take paratransit out of the purview of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and structure it as a standalone state agency funded by general state revenue. Maintaining the status quo, he wrote, would mean a paratransit service that would eventually eat up the entire transit agency’s budget.
Few are seriously considering that option. Instead, transit agencies say their solution is to steer paratransit customers towards traditional transit service when appropriate and scale back on service when legal. They argue that in many cases, traditional transit service can actually serve the needs of the disabled better, since they can operate on their own timetable instead of having to schedule pickups.
Jeff Becker, senior development manager at Denver’s Regional Transportation District, argues that paratransit's growth isn’t poised to cause a fiscal crisis. He says transit agencies need to get more creative and more flexible to reduce costs. “I don’t see why there’s a reason to panic,” Becker says.
Transit agencies aren’t always obligated to provide one-seat, no-transfer rides to the disabled --even though historically they have, according to Becker, who says more agencies will also need to use paratransit as a way to connect the disabled to traditional service rather than to bypass it entirely.
“It’s not as convenient for the customers, but neither is any transit service,” Becker says.
Paratransit advocates criticize changes
Those moves aren’t popular with the disabled, and in places like Portland and Washington, they have been met with an outcry from the disabled community.
Pat Spray, a MetroAccess customer who has used a wheelchair for 10 years, says the agency’s efforts to push disabled customers towards typical bus and rail is “upsetting and unnerving.” The subway's stations are dimly lit, its escalators and elevators are often out-of-service, and new fare machines lack the option of having audio prompts for the visually impaired. In other words, the system isn't as friendly to the disabled as some may think.
Meanwhile, Spray notes, MetroAccess isn’t a “gimme” program. Riders have to schedule pickups, and just like traditional bus and rail, they may or may not arrive at their destination on time. Spray is aware of the costs of the program but argues that by allowing people to travel independently -- as opposed to entering assisted living institutions -- it actually saves money in the long-term.
"The whole paratransit issue needs to be reframed in a broader context," says Spray, who became wheelchair-bound after a botched surgery. "It's part of a market basket of services. We're trying to keep grandma out of the home."