The shift in paratransit has created a new agency. With the location of Wenatchee at the foot of the mountains, there’s a lot of snow and ice. DeRock says, “Most people’s disabilities qualify for paratransit at least during the winter, if not for significant parts of time.” He continues, “One of the things that I brought from Los Angeles was a real questioning of the model being super strict on eligibility.
“We’re not in the business of telling people ‘No,’” says DeRock. “It puts us in this funny place where we’re making medical decisions, we’re making other issues.
“One of the thoughts I’ve always believed is that part of the reason that paratransit demand is so extreme is that we don’t meet people’s needs with the regular buses,” he stresses.
They looked at the fixed-routes, spent a lot of time talking to riders and looking at the route structures. One change was that they switched from hubbing to connecting all of the major destinations.
“Another thing we ended up doing,” says DeRock, “we went out and bought a couple of used low-floor buses.
“We couldn’t afford to buy new ones, but we had all high-floor equipment with lock lifts, where were not attractive to people with disabilities.”
He explains that they also worked at marketing it to the community, talking about the cost differences between them, explaining that the subsidy on paratransit was nearly $20 a ride where as the subsidy on the fixed-route was maybe $5- or $6-a-ride. “So it’s a better use of funds for everybody,” he says.
“Over a couple year period, we moved more than 25 percent of our paratransit riders to fixed-route voluntarily. They made that choice,” he states. “Ridership does go up a bit in the winter on paratransit, but no where near as much as it used to and total paratransit ridership is down 30 percent from what it was in 2002, even though our fixed-route ridership is up more than 200 percent.”
DeRock shares, “That reduction in paratransit ridership saved more than, much more than the deficit that we were running, which allowed us to put more service into fixed-route and expand.” He adds, “We’ve actually been able to restore all the service that was cut after the funding loss in ’99 without raising our taxes.
“We did it through efficiencies, through restructuring, brought back Saturday service, brought back frequencies.” He adds, “The number of hours we were operating in 1999 is the same as what we’re operating today on the fixed-route. Paratransit is less, but that’s voluntary. People made those choices because we’ve made the fixed-route work better.”
Connecting a Small Agency
DeRock says he’s convinced that being involved in the industry is important. Being involved, you know how to take advantage of opportunities and know where to look for money, he says. “You hear about them early so that you can position yourself in the right place so that your community or organization can take advantage of those that are out there.”
One example he uses is with Link Transit’s affiliation with the Washington State Transit Association. “When I got up here, no one was hedging and we weren’t big enough to hedge by ourselves,” he says. So a number of the properties put together a consortium of six properties in Washington State and they contract about 125,000 gallons a month. He adds, “It has given us price stability. It just takes that risk off the table.”
He adds, “You couldn’t have done it without the connectivity and working on a broader basis to get these things done.”