Sunday, March 22, 2009

Funding for accessible transportation in NJ in danger

From the Asbury Park Press in N.J.:

The county-run buses and vans that transport senior citizens and disabled residents are heading toward a red light, unless additional funding is found to keep them rolling at 2007 service levels, warned officials who operate those paratransit systems.

Known locally as Ocean Ride in Ocean County and SCAT in Monmouth County, paratransit systems depend on revenues from Atlantic City casinos, in addition to county funds. Counties lost $4 million in 2008 because of an 11 percent funding decrease from casinos as their revenues declined.

With casino revenues predicted to drop again, officials warned that could affect rides for senior citizens and disabled residents, who depend on them most.

"We lost $4 million between 2008 and 2009; counties started taking this loss on Jan. 1," said Michael Vieira, New Jersey Council on Special Transportation president. "This fiscal year, we're looking at a $2.8 million loss. We're talking $7 million lost in two years."

One solution is a bill in the state Legislature to increase casino funding to paratransit by 1 percent, which would keep service at 2007 levels.

"We're facing a severe paratransit problem. We're experiencing a financial crisis because we rely on casino funds," said Henry Nicholson, Monmouth County director of transportation. "It's the first time we ever faced a decrease in casino revenues."

Ocean and Bergen counties were the biggest losers statewide, with a decrease of $296,022 each in paratransit funding between 2008 and 2009, followed by Essex and Middlesex Counties. Monmouth County's funding was cut by $232,516.

Senior citizens rely on paratransit for transportation to doctor appointments, nonemergency medical treatment and grocery and prescription shopping. It's one of the services that elder advocates said helps keep seniors living independently in their own homes, instead of being institutionalized. Disabled residents depend on paratransit for rides to and from workplaces.

County transportation departments have made adjustments to handle lost funding, including cuts in the back office to spare service cuts to riders, delaying vehicle replacement, charging higher fares or in the worst case, laying off drivers, Vieira said.

"Camden County cut six drivers out. Most counties have done some cutting. A lot have taken capital equipment funding and put it in operations, meaning they're Band-Aiding vehicles to hold them together," Vieira said. "Some (systems) without fares are looking at the fare box."

One of those is Cape May County Fare Free Transportation, which Vieira said is considering charging fares for the first time.

Ocean County officials put off replacing vehicles for a year to spare service cuts to the 448,000 people transported annually, said Kathleen Edmund, director of Ocean Ride.

"Look at Ocean County and you'll find far less transit services in our county. NJ Transit has a limited number of routes," Edmund said. "Look at the options (to paratransit) and they are few and far between."

Ocean County runs a fleet of 75 buses and has 75 drivers providing service on 17 regular routes; reserve-a-ride transport to doctors appointments and medical treatments; veteran transportation; and rides for disabled residents to workplaces.

Monmouth County provides 315,000 rides annually with a fleet of 54 vehicles and 46 drivers. The county dealt with its $232,516 cut by increasing fares for the first time in seven years from $2 to $3, and laying off three drivers and a clerical worker, Nicholson said.

Monmouth County was able to reinstate the drivers after the freeholders obtained a transportation contract, allowing the drivers to be rehired, Nicholson said.

If further cuts happen, Nicholson said Monmouth County plans to scale back service from areas served by NJ Transit Access Link service.

"We'd target areas with Access Link services and suggest customers use that, to allow our service to operate in areas where Access Link doesn't run," he said.

Ocean County officials would look at consolidating its 17 routes to where the most demand is, Edmund said.

Two bills pending in the state Senate and Assembly would increase paratransit funding from casino revenues by 1 percent, allowing county paratransit systems to maintain 2007 service levels, Vieira said. Both bills have cleared committees and are waiting to be posted for a vote in the full Senate and Assembly.

One concern was whether other programs now funded by casino revenues would be cut. Vieira said that won't happen, noting that the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled prescription program, which funded by casino revenues, is being reimbursed with federal funds.

"The PAAD program largely became federally reimbursed . . . $180 million a year,'' Vieira said. "New Jersey could put that money back into the casino revenue fund (for paratransit)."

Last September, the council started its "Save My Ride" campaign with a goal of getting 20,000 signatures on petitions to be presented to the governor and legislators. Freeholders in Monmouth and Ocean have backed the legislation, local officials said.

"In three weeks we got 15,000 signed copies," Vieira said, adding they have met their 20,000 goal. "We're waiting for the bill to be posted for the full vote."

Vieira said he and other paratransit officials are scheduled to meet with transportation Commissioner Stephen Dilts next month.Vieira said funding cuts would have a ripple effect from state agencies to the average driver.

"If it is reduced, it not only affects counties," he said. "If you deny them rides, people will try the Red Cross or local municipalities. After three calls, a person who's not getting anywhere will start driving again."