Paratransit takes a hit in budget decisions; but the beat will go on

By David Hubbard

In an economy this bleak with requisite budget slashing unfortunately becoming the new order of the day, agencies and companies seem to be operating on the premise that they are just doing what a business has to do.

Many of the country’s major transit agencies are reluctantly weighing cuts in service, fare hikes and layoffs. Such is life for many — but certainly not all — transit agencies and transportation companies across the country. The Utah Transit Authority, (UTA), Salt Lake City, UT, points the residual damage from record high fuel prices and more recent dips in sales tax revenue for its recent cutbacks.

The fear is paratransit riders could be taking an unintentional but inordinate hit. For example, UTA has figured how to immediately trim off $1.6 million from its paratransit operations, while remaining compliant with ADA rules to provide paratransit service within a minimum three-quarters of a mile of bus and rail stations, and on the same time schedule as fixed route service. UTA says it will increase one-way paratransit fares and put a halt to ADA paratransit fare discounts. Cities across the country such as Albany, NY, Phoenix, AZ, and Reno, NV, are similarly facing fare hikes and service cuts in paratransit service to make up for funding shortages. Paratransit regulars are not taking the increases lightly.

APTA president William Millar almost understates the dilemma by saying paratransit is vital for people with disabilities but remains a very expensive service for transit systems. Last year national paratransit ridership climbed 5.8 percent. Millar says paratransit ridership made up only 2 percent of public transit ridership nationwide, but fares on average cover only one-third of the operating costs but expended 13 percent of the operating costs.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is urging public transit to seek out more inventive funding solutions, insisting the paradigm must change. The FTA is hinting that soon it will no longer be acceptable to simply cut service and raise fares at the same time.

Unfortunately, many of the alternative solutions it suggests are lofty and a long way off.

UTA does say the provisions it is making at this time are most likely temporary, and that people eligible for paratransit service will always be able to ride Trax and fixed-route bus service at no charge. Its ultimate objective is to still take the high road and strive to find or reallocate resources to provide service not only to the people who will suddenly be without service, along with the people not receiving the paratransit services they have needed for a long time.

While this may be SOP for the moment, some transportation companies around the country are managing to sidestep a downward spiral altogether.

On the OEM side, DesignLine USA, a manufacturer of hybrid transit buses, says it has been and will be hiring more workers — assemblers, body workers, electricians, mechanics and welders — for its new, 100,000-square-ft plant at its headquarters in Charlotte, NC.

TransCare Corporation
, Brooklyn, NY, is aggressive in its hiring paramedics and emergency medical technicians. Its ambulance operations and paratransit division serve the five boroughs of New York City; and the outlying communities outside the city including Philadelphia and Baltimore.

MTA NYC contracts with TransCare to operate its Access-A-Ride Paratransit and smaller operations in the other regions. The company says in the last fiscal quarter it added more than 240 new employees.

TransCare says it always has an ongoing need for paratransit operators, and plans to continue its weekly hiring open houses in addition to special hiring events to help fill those spots.

Believing successful staffing does not begin and end with new hires, TransCare says it has worked as hard to improve its employee retention rate, relying on its People First approach to enable engaged and happy employees to stay and deliver the quality service that drives the bottom line.

TransCare says it promotes from within and offers career options to paratransit drivers capable of moving into dispatch, field training and supervisory positions, and help oversee the deployment of hundreds of paratransit operators and a fleet of more than 200 MTA NYC Access-A-Ride vehicles.

Because the tremendous need for all paratransit services is not going away, we want the essential medical transport, emergency and non-emergency medical services to hold strong despite the economy, or at least the compromises to disadvantaged and disabled home bound passengers kept to a minimum.