CHAPEL HILL - The number of people living longer but with more debilitating illnesses is complicating the provision of good, affordable public transportation for people with disabilities, officials say.
When the first Baby Boomers reached age 65 in 2011, America had 39.6 million seniors.
By 2030, that number could be 71 million – roughly 20 percent of the population.
“The need for those that are using mobility devices, especially wheelchairs, has risen drastically over the last five years. According to the … forecasted demographics in Orange County, it will continue to happen rapidly,” said Al Terry, Orange Public Transportation director.
OPT provided roughly 113,000 one-way trips in 2010 to about 13,000 rural and urban residents living outside Chapel Hill Transit service areas.
Another 1,200 residents actively used CHT’s EZ Rider demand-response, or paratransit, service, and another 1,500 could ride if they were recertified, operations manager Tyffany Neal says. EZ Rider provided about 62,000 one-way trips in 2010, data showed.
Those numbers, combined with sharp increases in employee health care, insurance and retirement costs, as well as the expense of fuel, maintenance and replacement vehicles for aging fleets, will continue challenging local systems, officials say.Longer ride times
OPT and CHT drivers chart their time and mileage at every stop, providing data to improve performance. CHT also uses a transit software program to help plot the most efficient routes.
Terry says OPT constantly seeks grants to upgrade its fleet, pay for existing services and hire more part-time drivers who don’t receive costly benefits. He also credits a strong emphasis on group scheduling with saving time and money. While clients picked up in remote parts of the county ride the bus longer, those with similar destinations are grouped to limit stops and keep drivers moving, he says.
CHT assistant director Brian Litchfield says the partnership between Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC is key to keeping its system fare-free. State and federal funding have fallen sharply.
In 2011-12, the system covered part of a $2.3 million budget shortfall by cutting morning and evening service on multiple fixed routes, triggering similar EZ Rider service changes. EZ Rider was cut back to a 3/4-mile radius around fixed-service routes – the minimum required under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A third step – selling advertising space on CHT buses – has generated only about a third of the forecasted $200,000 to $450,000 in additional revenue.Costs increasing
EZ Rider and OPT carry three to four passengers on each vehicle with trips averaging about $58 and $24 per hour, respectively.
EZ Rider operates 19 vehicles, while OPT has 22. CHT also runs 98 fixed-route buses at a cost of roughly $35 per hour to carry, on average, 44 passengers.
Historically, transit costs rise 6 percent to 8 percent annually, but future increases could be in the double digits, Litchfield says. More cuts and tax increases are possible, officials say.
CHT’s approved 2012-13 budget cuts demand-response funding by 6.8 percent to $1.85 million. Litchfield said two vacant driver positions were removed, and fixed-route drivers, who are paid less, are filling in as needed. They also cut back on location checks for new riders, visiting only those that are not clearly accessible, he said.
The focus now is on improving EZ Rider’s performance and service, Neal says. She regularly reviews operator call logs and rides buses at least 10 hours each week. EZ Rider will only work if staff, clients and the EZ Rider Transportation Advisory Committee work together, she says.
Critics say the committee – an informal advisory group to the town’s Transportation Committee – is unpredictable and lacks authority. Neal said some meetings have been cancelled, but the group is a vital public advocate and is updating several policies for a new handbook.
EZ Rider’s 2004 handbook often conflicts with newer policies, like the recertification process, Neal says. The ADA allows local agencies to recertify longtime clients as new technologies, operating procedures or changes in a disability make fixed-route buses more accessible.
Since ADA rules also require transit agencies to buy new, disability-accessible fixed-route buses, many CHT buses are equipped with better wheelchair ramps and tie-downs, wider steps, the ability to “kneel” to the curb, and announced routes and stops.
Litchfield says many of the issues they encounter stem from outdated information. Some riders also don’t like change and want to return to previous policies, he says.Not enough money
Local officials say while it would be great to provide paratransit service to everyone in need, there’s not enough money.
Local governments have been hit especially hard by state and federal cuts, County Commissioner Alice Gordon says. After funding required services, like education and public safety, there’s not much left, she says.
The commissioners are “quite concerned about cuts that would affect the most vulnerable among us,” she says.
Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil says limited resources also make community input important for identifying priorities. The town is always looking for “opportunities that may lead to increased efficiencies and improved service to our residents and partners,” he said.
One such opportunity could be a possible city-county paratransit consolidation, officials say. A joint transportation group is reviewing a draft report submitted by Maryland-based KFH Consultants and funded by the N.C. Department of Transportation, Litchfield says.
Terry says a merger would give OPT clients more destinations and extended service hours, especially on weekends. It would let CHT access more state and federal resources, which often are based on the number of riders.
The biggest hurdles could be how to bring multiple governing boards to agreement and combine a fare-free system with one in which riders and partner agencies share the cost, officials say. But transit leaders agree it makes sense to improve both services by working together.
“We know there’s overlap, because Orange County is taking people to many of the same places that we’re going, so a lot of times you’ll see our vehicles at the same [place] … we even have some of the same clients,” Litchfield said.