Saturday, March 8

Disturbing changes to Special Transit Service

Greetings. Though I no longer use the Special Transit Service (some call it Para-Transit), or a service designed for those disabled people who cannot, for whatever reason, use regular busses to get around; I can identify with the outrage and annoyance that many in the blind community feel regarding the proposed changes that Capitol Metro is trying to make. Read the article below for more information. What's probably most outragious is that Capitol Metro has tried to sneak these changes by the very community they serve. They say that they have held "public hearings" on this issue, but from what I understand, those hearings were 2 years ago. I saw an email on a list where an invitation was sent out to the various Austin disability groups/organizations to attend a special meeting to discuss these changes, however the 4 main groups in the Austin area, 2 of which are the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, were not invited. If this was supposed to be a genuine effort to get input from the people they serve, then why weren't these groups invited? Anyway, the Austin American Statesman has an article on this disturbing situation, along with a list of the proposed changes. There will be a local TV news story on this issue on Channel 7, Fox, this Monday night at 9. I normally say enjoy at the end of my summaries, but I'm not sure that this issue can be enjoyed at its current state.

Ruling puts Cap Metro plan to curb taxi service to people with disabilities on hold

Agency cites need to control costs on burgeoning door-to-door service for those unable to use regular bus system.

By Ben Wear
Saturday, March 08, 2008

An attempt by Capital Metro, with minimal notice to riders and no action by the transit agency's board, to severely curtail use of taxis by people with
disabilities starting next week was halted Friday by a Travis County judge.

State District Judge Jeanne Meurer, responding to a complaint by the Texas Civil Rights Project, hit the transit agency with a temporary restraining order,
forcing it to continue letting riders with certain disabilities use cabs for regular trips. A hearing this month will determine whether to extend the order.

However, the agency still intends to make a number of other significant changes in its "special transit services," modifications generally opposed by leaders
on the committee that monitors the agency's policies for what is known in the industry as paratransit.

But it is the proposed taxi cutback has sparked the most consternation among some of the 9,000 people eligible for Capital Metro's door-to-door pickup services.
It also sparked the legal move by the Texas Civil Rights Project, which had argued in a letter Thursday to Capital Metro that the taxi change would violate
the Americans with Disabilities Act. The agency should suspend the taxi voucher shift, the letter said, and hold a public hearing so the disabled community
can weigh in on the subject.

The other half-dozen or so changes will take effect in the coming months and include a 700 percent increase in the penalty for excessive last-minute cancellations
of scheduled rides and a more stringent eligibility screening process.

Agency officials said Capital Metro is spending about 19 percent of its budget to provide 650,000 rides a year, just 2 percent of its overall total ridership,
and that it must control paratransit costs as it deals with an aging baby boom generation likely to increasingly need such services. The 2,000 or so rides
provided each day include 1,100 "subscription" rides, which are lifts to and from jobs, regular doctor appointments or dialysis and other recurring demands.

The agency says it has requests for about 700 more rides each day than it can provide with its fleet of about 100 vans and sedans, using taxis for the overflow.
Requests for rides, agency officials say, increased 9 percent last quarter.

"If we don't make some adjustments, we're not going to be able to keep up with the demand," said Inez Evans, the agency's director of paratransit services.

But some people who use the paratransit services, which are available only to those whose infirmities make it impossible for them to use regular bus service,
say this is just another in a series of efforts by the agency to make budgetary room as the agency builds a $100 million-plus commuter rail line and takes
on $10 million or more in yearly costs to operate it.

"They want to spend money in other areas, and they want to cut somewhere," said Judy Watford, who is blind and chairs the agency's Access Advisory Committee.
"So if they can cut this, they will. ... We're the stepchild, basically."

Capital Metro's use of taxis to supplement its fleet of paratransit vehicles is unusual. The San Antonio and Dallas transit agencies, for instance, do not
use taxis. San Antonio's VIA spends 17.3 percent of its budget on paratransit. Dallas Area Rapid Transit spends about 9 percent on paratransit, but the
comparison is inexact because DART's operating costs include tens of millions of dollars to run the agency's light rail system. Neither Austin or San Antonio
have passenger rail service currently.

Capital Metro covers most of the cost for paratransit taxi rides up to six miles; the customer pays the taxi driver just 60 cents, and the transit agency
pays them on a sliding scale of up to $14.30 for four to six miles. For longer rides, the rider pays the difference.

Capital Metro, like all transit agencies, is required under federal law to provide special services for people with disabilities. The federal government,
so as to offer comparable transit service to everyone, also requires the agency to provide the door-to-door rides — which Watford prefers to call "curb-to-curb"
— for anyone who lives within three-quarters of a mile of one of the agency's regular bus routes.

State law, meanwhile, requires the agency to provide rides to people with qualifying disabilities in the four cities that at one time were in the agency's
service area but pulled out: Cedar Park, Pflugerville, West Lake Hills and Rollingwood.

That amounted to about 12,600 rides last year. Capital Metro had to cover half that $227,000 cost the cities had to cover the other half — but will now
be able to bill the cities for all of it under a 2007 change in state law.

In 2006, the agency estimated it cost $45 for each ride for a West Lake or Rollingwood customer, about three times its maximum taxi cost.

Evans said the agency has had a particular problem with customers who cancel rides late — within one hour of the pickup time — or don't come out to the
agency's van when it comes to get them. She said that late cancellations or no-shows occur on 7 percent to 10 percent of reservations and that the industry
average is 2.9 percent.

Thus, the increase in the penalty for doing so repetitively from $1.20 to $10.

"Our goal is to effectuate change in behavior," Evans said.

Watford and Diane Bomar, the access committee vice chairwoman, say that whatever the goal is, the people most affected were not consulted.

"They're forcing this down our throats," Bomar said.

So how much have Capital Metro's paratransit costs increased in recent years?

Capital Metro says costs rose about 80 percent in six years, from $14.9 million in 2001-02 to $26.9 million in 2006-07. That would be a faster growth rate
than the 66.2 percent increase in the agency's overall operating budget during the same time.

But the actual 2007-08 budget paints a more modest picture. It says the agency will spend $11.8 million on paratransit in the current fiscal year, an increase
of about $6,000 from the previous year. Over two years, the increase is 5.3 percent, as opposed to the 23.9 percent hike in the overall operating budget
during that time.

Why the differing budget numbers?

Agency spokesman Adam Shaivitz said the $26.9 million figure includes costs allocated from other departments that contribute to the paratransit operation,
such as maintenance and administration. The figure includes a $6.6 million "general administration allocation" and about $3.2 million for "purchased transportation"
— that is, taxis.

Hannah Riddering, a taxi driver with seven regular paratransit customers and others who call her from time to time for rides, said all the focus on numbers
is misplaced. She has a seemingly inexhaustible set of stories about indignities visited on people with disabilities using Capital Metro's service, most
involving people left out in inclement weather for hours.

The changes the agency has in mind, Riddering said, could force some people with disabilities to quit their jobs or spend exorbitantly on taxis to approximate
the freedom of movement people with disabilities enjoy.

"Capital Metro says they're looking at numbers, and I don't even think they're realistically looking at that," Riddering said. "But we're out here looking
at people. And disabled people don't need or deserve to have to get up each morning and deal with this."

Proposed 'paratransit' changes

Was to take effect Monday; now on hold

Taxi vouchers:Most people who have been using taxi vouchers on a regular basis for fixed work schedules, regular doctor visits or other recurring needs
would instead use the Capital Metro fleet. Some paratransit customers, however, would still use taxis when the Capital Metro fleet of vans and sedans does
not have capacity to pick them up.

Starting in May

Cancellations/no-shows:Currently, a customer incurs a $1.20 penalty starting with the fifth late cancellation or no-show within a month. This penalty will
increase to $10 starting with the fourth late cancellation or no-show in a month, and those who don't pay this penalty within 30 days could see their paratransit
service suspended.

Advance reservations:Instead of being able to make reservations between eight days in advance and 24 hours in advance, the reservation window will be between
three days and 24 hours.

Call center hours:The call center that takes ride reservations will now be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with reservations available outside
that slot only via a voice-recognition system that users say often mishandles calls. Before, it was open to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 7 p.m. on weekends.

Pickup 'window':The time frame during which Capital Metro can show up for a ride will go from 15 minutes (after the scheduled pickup time) to 30 minutes
(15 minutes before and after the scheduled pickup time).

Starting in August

Open returns: Riders will have less flexibility on return trips;they'll now have to schedule specific times to be picked up by agency vansfor return trips.

Starting in November

Eligibility: Customers must be recertified as qualified for paratransit services every two years, as is currently the case but will now have to be vetted
in-person by a contractor hired by Capital Metro. Those capable of riding regular buses, but incapable of getting to the stops, will now get paratransit
service only from home (or their destination) to the bus stop. Before, they were getting paratransit rides door-to-door., 445-3698

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