Is there room on the bus for all of us?
A car accident 12 years ago left J.J. Martell a quadriplegic. But being disabled doesn't mean he's immobile. The 35-year-old Burlington resident -- a good-humored, bearded man -- gets around his neighborhood in a motorized wheelchair. A few days each week, he commutes to his Colchester job, where he uses voice recognition software to do data entry.
Martell owns a handicap-accessible van. But since he requires a caregiver to drive it, and he only has help in the evenings, most of the time it stays parked in his driveway. He rides to work, and elsewhere, in a paratransit van -- usually one operated by the Special Services Transportation Agency.
You've seen SSTA vans on the road; they're hard to miss. They look like regular 15-passenger vans, but with a bulky, three-foot addition on top that enables someone to stand inside.
When Martell drives his wheelchair to the van, the driver must get out, open the doors, and operate the motorized wheelchair ramp to get him inside. The driver then secures Martell's chair with four tie-down straps. The process takes a few minutes to complete, and must be repeated in reverse when the disabled passenger disembarks.
SSTA Executive Director Murray Benner notes that not everyone who uses SSTA's ADA services is in a wheelchair, but they all need special care and attention. "If you get a little old lady who has a walker," says Benner, "it can take us 10 minutes to get her down the steps." He adds that dealing with other physical and mental disabilities, such as Alzheimer's, can turn a 2-mile trip into a lengthy excursion.
That's one reason rides on SSTA's 38 vans are so costly. Along with compensation for the driver who helps riders in and out of the van, there's also the price of the vehicles themselves -- they run upwards of $40,000. Add in insurance and rising fuel costs and you're left with an increasingly pricey personalized service: about $40 an hour, or $19.75 for the average half-hour trip. That's the flat rate SSTA charges most of its clients.
Who pays? The riders shell out $2.50 per trip. A federal or state program may pay for the remaining $17.25. Otherwise, it comes from the coffers of the town the rider lives in -- as required by the 1992 Americans With Disabilities Act. If a disabled rider lives within three-quarters of a mile of a Chittenden County Transportation Authority fixed bus route, and the trip takes place during CCTA's regular service hours, the originating municipality is obligated to pay the bulk of the fare.
The federal government issued this directive but failed to fund it. That has led to a worrisome situation. As Vermonters are getting older and less mobile, CCTA's ADA ridership is growing. Since 1997, it's more than doubled. Today CCTA serves nearly 2000 ADA-eligible riders, who took 28,861 trips last year. These rising costs are forcing communities to make difficult decisions, and, ironically, threaten to make public transportation less accessible to the general public.
Elderly and disabled people aren't the only passengers whose trips are subsidized. Taxpayer dollars help pay for all public bus service. The Americans With Disabilities Act dictates that any time a municipality provides a service to its residents, it has to make that benefit available to all of them, regardless of ability.
That sounds great, but it's turning out to be expensive. Communities that want to provide bus service have clearly underestimated how much extending it to everyone would cost. As CCTA bus ridership increases, towns' price tags go down. But as ADA-mandated SSTA use goes up, so do local costs. In many Vermont towns, public transportation is still not an option. But where the CCTA buses do run, the benefit has become something of a burden.
Some communities, such as Winooski, have been particularly hard hit. Onion City residents took a total of 1353 ADA trips in 2002, 2173 rides in 2003, and 3448 in 2004. That's an increase of nearly 60 percent two years in a row.
The city's 2006 budget -- rejected last month by voters -- included a whopping $24,000 increase in CCTA funding. ADA ridership was responsible for almost all of it, raising Winooski's CCTA bill from $87,000 to more than $111,000. Those are big numbers for a town of about 6700, which has a higher poverty rate -- and a larger concentration of seniors and low-income residents -- than do its neighbors.
CCTA Executive Director Chris Cole calls providing these services "a laudable goal, and good policy." But he points out that it places a burden on municipalities that, at some point, they may be unwilling to bear. "If ADA ridership continues to escalate," he says, "it's going to come at the expense of the fixed route system." In other words, there could soon be fewer buses running on fewer routes.
The town of Shelburne has already cut bus service. Faced with a 162 percent increase in ADA ridership in 2002 -- the total went from 546 rides in 2001 to 1434 in 2002 -- the town scaled back its service in order to lower costs. CCTA used to make 28 trips to Shelburne on a typical weekday. Now it makes 14. To achieve that reduction, the bus parks several times a day at the Mobil Short Stop at the corner of Route 7 and Allen Road. It waits there for 20 minutes or so -- the time it would have taken to complete the route -- then continues back toward the Cherry Street station.
Shelburne's stop-gap measure doesn't actually reduce CCTA's overhead; Cole and company are still paying for the driver and the bus. But because the bus doesn't stop in Shelburne, the town pays less, essentially shifting some of its cost burden to other towns. South Burlington City Manager Chuck Hafter calls this system "unsustainable."
Shelburne Town Manager Paul Bohne III agrees. "It's a crazy situation," he admits, "but until we find some other way of funding CCTA, that's the way it goes... It's the age-old problem. We have a lot of services that are needed, and yet the ability to pay for those services is limited."
The strain of this unfunded mandate is being felt all over. Winooski City Manager Gerry Myers spoke about this year's unexpected increase at an informational meeting the night before Town Meeting Day. He sounded defensive as he explained that it was related to the ADA increase. "We didn't have this problem three years ago," he said.
Accessibility advocates point out that seeking benefits required by law is hardly a "problem." Stan Marshall of Winooski, who uses a wheelchair, calls the argument that disabled residents are threatening CCTA's public transportation "bullshit."
"You must provide accessible transportation, period," he says, "the same way that you can't discriminate against women." Marshall's implicit message: If serving disabled people means cutting fixed route services, that's tough. Cities need to figure out a way to deal with it.
Why has ADA ridership increased so much over the past few years? No one seems to have an answer -- not the folks at the CCTA, nor city officials, nor disability and elderly rights advocates. But there are some theories. Attitudes towards disabilities have changed in general. Since dependence on a wheelchair no longer means being confined to one's residence, it makes sense that more physically challenged people would use public transportation. And the population is aging. Most people agree that the increase is coming mainly from elderly riders, rather than younger disabled people like Martell.
Myers and others have also suggested that there is more awareness of the program today than in years past -- advocates have successfully publicized the service. CCTA's Cole also observes that even one or two new residents can skew the numbers if they use the service often. Dialysis patients, for example, need rides three times a week.
There has also been talk of fraud. Just about everyone concedes that some people are probably abusing the system, though Cole points out that the CCTA has recently tightened eligibility requirements. It will now refuse service to people who repeatedly cancel rides at the last minute or don't show. And Cole says that in the last few months, the CCTA has been trying to determine which of its ADA clients are capable of riding in regular cabs, which cost much less than SSTA service.
John Barbour, executive director of the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging, says the increase is most likely related to senior housing. He notes that Winooski has several senior housing complexes, all of which -- like everything else in Winooski -- are within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route, but not necessarily within walking distance of a supermarket or pharmacy.
He points out that when communities build senior housing within three-quarters of a mile of a bus route, but not on it, it's more likely seniors will take advantage of ADA transportation. "Sometimes the towns think that seniors are kind of cheap to house," he says, "but there is some additional cost."
Barbour adds that the costs are only going to rise. "Between 2005 and 2015," he says, "the size of the 65-and-over population will rise by 38 percent... somehow, this whole society's going to have to come up with a way to cope."
For now, Chris Cole is seeking an infusion of cash from the state. He and Winooski Mayor Clement Bissonnette recently testified before the Senate Transportation Committee to ask the state to shift some of its federal transportation money to fund the ADA portion of CCTA's budget. All told, that bill comes to nearly half a million dollars.
Transportation Committee Chair Dick Mazza (D-Colchester) says the response to the request was "positive... It made a lot of sense to us." He points out, though, that the committee has other priorities to consider, such as funding for transportation in rural areas. "But if there's ever an area he needs help in," he says of Cole, "this is probably one that we would address."
Still, the Senate's actions depend largely on the House including the funds in its transportation-spending bill. And at this point, there's no certainty that will happen. Mazza suggests that if any action is taken on the proposal, it'll likely occur next week.
Cole is hopeful that he'll get help. "All I'm asking for is some money to pay for the transportation of disabled and elderly people [to lessen the impact on these communities]. It seems reasonable."
But Murray Benner of SSTA says even that measure may not work. "It's not like the state has a pot of money." Speaking from experience, he observes, "There's just no easy way to do this. There's just no easy answer."
It's a question Vermonters must confront as the need for this service increases. Because public transportation isn't just about getting places, it's also about freedom. "I find it easier to take the SSTA van," says J.J. Martell, "because then I don't have to depend on anybody."