Saturday, September 25, 2010

Austin, Texas, public transportation raises fares, cuts services for people with disabilities

From the Austin American-Statesman in Texas:

Midday MetroRail trains. Cuts in service for people with disabilities. A $57 million bus contract. And a 2010-11 budget that presumes the third fare increase since 2008 , including charging seniors and people with disabilities for the first time since 1989 .

Capital Metro's still-new board, in its most active and significant day since taking over in January , took steps Friday to boost commuter rail's meager ridership while also shoring up the transit agency's shaky finances.

The confluence of added spending on rail, which tends to serve riders with other transportation options, and reduced service for people with disabilities, often dependent on transit to get around, drew rebukes and even tears from some of those on hand for the board's marathon meeting.

"If you pass this policy, you will destroy the relationship you have with the handicapped community," said Sandy Seekamp , who uses a wheelchair and is a client of the agency's door-to-door service for people whose disabilities don't allow them to use regular buses. "You're so concerned about trying to make more people ride the rail \u2026 that you're cutting our system to the bone. And we can't handle it."

Board members, however, defended the changes; most were approved unopposed or with new member Justine Blackmore-Hlista abstaining because she was attending her first meeting.

Also Friday, the board approved $2.5 million for sidewalk and other improvements at its 3,000 bus stops, and it put $250,000 into a new "basic transportation needs" fund intended to subsidize fares for the poor.

"We need to make sure (low-income people and people with disabilities) have the tools to access the system," board member Frank Fernandez said.

The board made several changes Friday to what the agency calls its MetroAccess service. Three of those changes generated most of the concern:

• All 6,800 of those currently eligible for the door-to-door rides will have to go through a fresh certification process over the next two years, including an interview and, potentially, a "functional assessment" by a contractor that Capital Metro will hire. Up to now, a person's doctor could certify that their patient was unable to use the bus system and needed the individual rides, either temporarily or permanently.

Capital Metro officials said the new process will be expensive — almost $650,000 in the first year — but that it will save $1.8 million because an estimated 19 percent of current customers won't seek certification, and another 9 percent will be deemed ineligible.

"We, I suspect, have historically let people in (to MetroAccess) who should not be eligible," board member John Langmore said. "So it is ironic that we are having to change our eligibility process to correct our own failings in the past."

• The board also decided to replace its taxi voucher program, in which MetroAccess clients can call for a cab, pay $1.20 and have Capital Metro cover the next $16.50 — the client pays for any charges above that. Under the new approach, put forward by Capital Metro staff in the past two days, a client could pay $20 each month and get a card worth $80 in taxi fares. Once that $80 was gone, the person would have to wait until the next month.

• And the board made official a cut in service done by Capital Metro's staff in 2005 — in violation of federal disability law, some said Friday — to offer MetroAccess services only to people living within three-quarters of a mile of regular Capital Metro bus routes.

At the same time, the board agreed with a staff recommendation to end "grandfathering" for the 400 or so people who live outside those corridors who were still getting door-to-door rides. Doing so will save about $1 million a year, officials said this summer.

Those cuts in MetroAccess service — the agency estimates it will offer 4.5 percent fewer such rides in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 — came as the board approved a $168.2 million operating budget for 2010-11, a 2.1 percent increase over this year's budget. Capital spending will increase from $27.7 million to $44.7 million in 2010-11, the bulk of that for replacing buses ($16.4 million ) and preparing for the agency's new "rapid bus" line ($12.5 million ).

The budget numbers assume that the board will raise fares in January and thus generate an additional $1.4 million .

People 65 and older, and those who qualify for a disability fare card — all of whom ride for free currently — would have to pay 50 cents a ride or $15 for a 31-day bus pass. The proposed new fare schedule also would increase the cost of many of the agency's discounted 31-day passes.