Paratransit Funding: Is there a Silver Bullet?

Introducing customers with disabilities to accessible fixed-route service used to be about creating choices and providing independence. While it still accomplishes these things, the reality is that a primary goal of increasing the use of fixed-route service has rapidly become the bottom-line, one that is growing at exponential rates as more and more active seniors and people with disabilities use paratransit services at increasingly higher levels.

Fueled by the beginning of baby boomer retirements, greater community accessibility and greater educational, work and recreational opportunities, seniors and people with disabilities are starting to use public transit. For many, this means paratransit service. Couple the increased demand with the increased cost to provide such service, and you have the “perfect storm.” Trip lengths are increasing as communities grow, vehicle wait times are increasing as more trips are medical related, and more young and active people with disabilities are using paratransit services on a regular basis. As all transit providers know, the cost for providing these essential services falls squarely on our shoulders. Transit providers face annual double-digit cost increases that appear to have no end in sight. At Lane Transit District (LTD), the costs associated with paratransit service have increased more than 300 percent over the past decade, but more alarming is the fact that these trends are not slowing, which means that difficult budget decisions lie ahead.

Demand for all public transit services is growing. Funds already are being stretched by rising fuel and personnel costs. What’s the answer?

Unfortunately, it appears that part of the answer positions paratransit services against fixed-route services. With only so many service dollars to go around, paratransit becomes the heavyweight, while fixed-route service battles to stay in the fight. With the Americans with Disabilities Act in its corner, complementary paratransit services will be funded, and there is little question that they should be. However, at a time when demand for fixed-route service is at an all-time high, this situation is most challenging.

LTD has long been an advocate for service to seniors and people with disabilities. It achieved 100 percent fixed-route accessibility in 1985. Innovative programs like travel training and transit hosts have been in place for many years, and a strong relationship with local agencies and advocates has established a foundation of collaboration and coordination. LTD hopes to create an opportunity to realize new efficiencies and is in the process of instituting a centralized transportation call center. The Lane Council of Government’s Senior & Disabled Services Department has dedicated case management positions to serve as call takers for Medicaid non-emergency medical transportation trips for Lane County residents for a very long time.

LTD is taking the ambitious step of creating a call center combining the Medicaid transportation program and all other human services transportation options and programs (such as ADA, Lane County Developmental Disability services, services to a local pre-school program for children with disabled parents) into a “one-stop shopping” call center for eligible participants. When the call center is operational, customers will have a single telephone number to call to arrange their transportation, regardless of how the services are funded or what program they are affiliated with. A great concept, but the “devil is in the details.”

It is unlikely that this or any other single strategy will be the “silver bullet” that districts are looking for to solve this complicated problem. The answer likely will involve a range of strategies, and it will be different for different properties. Whether or not creating a call center will yield the desired efficiencies LTD is seeking will not be known for a couple of years — a couple of years when the demand and cost for paratransit services will continue to rise. As an industry, we must continue to ask these questions:

  • Are there new technologies that will allow greater efficiency in providing paratransit service?
  • How will districts fund needed expansion of fixed-route service to meet the increasing demand?
  • Are there new incentives or service improvements that will bring paratransit riders to fixed-route service?
  • What role can and will our state and federal governments play in funding transportation services to seniors and people with disabilities?
  • If transit agencies are asked to take on the responsibility for coordinating services and becoming, in the new vernacular, “mobility managers” where are the resources that will adequately support that effort?
  • How do we avoid the rivalry between fixed-route and paratransit vying for resources when accessibility is about having strong elements of both along with other associated services?

Terry Parker is Lane Transit District’saccessible services manager.