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April 17, 2014

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Transportation:

Committee OKs small increase in paratransit fees for seniors, disabled

The senior and disabled people who use paratransit services to get around the valley won’t have to worry about losing their monthly passes, but are likely facing a small fare increase.

The Regional Transportation Commission, which operates the valley’s public bus system and the companion paratransit service as required by law, had previously said it would eliminate monthly passes to save money.

Instead, the commission is hoping to tap into a source of federal funds it hasn’t been receiving. But the commission is moving forward on raising the fare paratransit passengers pay.

Currently, passengers pay a fare based on the time of day and location they travel. Base fares start at $2.75 and the cost goes as high as $6 per trip. The average fare is $2.96.

The commission is proposing changing the fare to a flat $3, no matter when or where people travel. The change will be just a 4-cent increase for the average trip, but some passengers will end up paying less than they previously had.

The commission’s Transportation Access Advisory Committee approved the change after a public hearing Wednesday, where all of the eight speakers approved the increase.

The proposal will go to the commission’s full board at its regular meeting next Thursday. If approved, the new fares will go into effect Jan. 1.

But the main purpose of Wednesday’s committee meeting originally was for a public hearing on the proposal to eliminate the monthly pass for paratransit riders, which costs $80.

The commission has struggled to pay for the paratransit service over the past year.

The recession has cut the commission’s revenues by about $40 million per year, General Manager Jacob Snow said.

To make things worse, the state cut its transportation services for seniors to get to day care centers last August, resulting in a 20 percent increase in use for the paratransit service in the last year.

The state had offered the adult day care program and was partially reimbursed by Medicaid, but the recession led to the state abandoning the program to save money.

While paratransit riders pay a fare, the actual cost of providing each trip is much more, averaging $41.55, so the trip increase cost the RTC millions of dollars, Snow said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the commission to provide paratransit service for areas that are served by regular fixed-route buses. The law also says fares for paratransit have to be less than twice the cost of fixed-route fares.

Even if the commission raised paratransit fares to the maximum, $4, it would only generate about $250,000 a year, Snow said.

The commission responded instead by cutting fixed-route service to save money. It also reduced the area where paratransit service is provided to the legal minimum.

But the commission also discovered that some of the paratransit users took advantage of the monthly passes to take a lot of trips. About 8 percent of the riders use up more than a quarter of the paratransit budget, Snow said.

Eliminating the monthly pass would encourage those riders to use the service less often and pay more for the rides they do use, saving as much as $2 million per year, Snow said.

But when the commission announced the proposal and began accepting public comment, the response was overwhelmingly negative.

Riders told the commission to raise fares if needed but not cut the passes. Many of the riders said they are on a fixed income and use the monthly pass to control their budgets.

Some of the self-described heavy users said they rely on the service for getting to work, school or medical appointments.

Caregivers pointed out that some people with mental disabilities have a hard time keeping track of their fare, so it is easier for them to use a monthly pass.

But in the comment process, one idea stood out.

Ed Guthrie, the executive director of Opportunity Village, suggested the commission apply for the Medicaid money the state was no longer getting since the commission was providing the same service. Opportunity Village provides services to adults with intellectual disabilities, many of whom use the paratransit service.

It turns out, that is exactly how it used to work. About a decade ago, the commission provided the adult day care trips and got the reimbursement through the state, but as the population grew, the state decided to take over the service and work with its own contractor.

So the commission is now negotiating with the state to do the same thing, although on a larger scale now, Snow said.

He expects the commission would get about $2 million per year from Medicaid for providing the day care trips, which it is already providing without the reimbursement.

For now, the commission has tabled the proposal to eliminate the monthly pass and is sticking with a $3 fare instead of the maximum $4 fare allowed by law.

But Snow warns that if the economy doesn’t improve, those two options could come up again.

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