The right transit fit: Not a 79 percent reduction in Sussex
I wrote recently about DART’s efforts to find the “right fit” for transportation services in Sussex County. DART officials held workshops and presented information about expenses and ridership. The essence of those workshops could be summed up as follows: paratransit service; the door to door program many Sussex County elderly and disabled residents depend upon, costs 47 percent of DART’s total statewide $80 million annual budget and provides about eight percent of the total annual statewide trips.
Nationwide transit systems typically spend only about 11 percent of their budgets on paratransit.
This is an important point and to DART’s credit, they are clearly trying to explain why something has to change. The current service delivery model cannot be sustained in the face of ever increasing demands for both general public and specialized transportation services. One fact that DART does not put out in their Right Fit transit literature is that a paratransit operated by DART costs about $52 per trip. They are not the most expensive in the nation, but there are a lot more systems providing trips at 2/3 of that cost and less.
More important for elderly and disabled residents of Sussex County is this entire notion of Right Fit. DART must comply with what are called the “Complementary Paratransit” mandates of the federal American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA). A key element of these mandates is the requirement that public transportation organizations, like DART, must provide door to door paratransit services to all persons with an eligible disability within a ¾-mile radius of every transit route. New Castle has 44 routes, Kent has 14 routes and Sussex has two routes. Any cut backs in paratransit service will not come within the federally mandated ADA Complementary Paratransit service areas. To do so would be a violation of federal law.
Sussex County with its two bus routes comprises 48 percent of Delaware’s total land area. One in every four Sussex Countians is aged 65 years or more compared to one in six Delawareans statewide. One third of all Delaware senior citizens reside in Sussex County. The annual growth rate of seniors is higher in Sussex than in the remainder of the state and while there is much media attention to the baby boomer generation joining the ranks of senior citizens, the Sussex County Senior Citizen growth rate exceeds the national average. Of the 982,000 paratransit trips provided by DART annually, only 203,000, less than ¼ of all paratransit trips were provided in Sussex County, Delaware’s largest county, that is home to 1/3 of our 65+ year old residents.
DART estimates that 79 percent of the paratransit trips it currently provides in Sussex County are outside of the ADA service area. At the same time they estimate that only 47 percent of the Kent trips are outside of the ADA service area and that number drops to 19 percent in New Castle County. If the ADA regulations were strictly applied as service limitations and alternatives are not implemented, four out of every five persons currently relying on DART paratransit may find themselves isolated in rural areas with no access to essential services and their communities. The impact of any reduction in DART paratransit service would be disproportionately felt by Delaware’s rural senior and nowhere would that impact be more devastating than in Sussex County.
Options and alternatives
Other transportation service delivery models have been tried in other rural parts of the country. Some have been able to maintain or even increase levels of mobility and some have even reduced costs. Careful planning coupled closely with meaningful involvement from local riders and community service organizations is a common element of those programs which have been successful. On the other hand there are too many examples where local interests have not been constructively considered in the service delivery process and those results are less encouraging.
We understand that putting a fixed route bus stop across an open field and on the opposite side of a busy two lane road may not truly be the access residents of a senior citizen apartment complex a quarter mile from the route may be able to use. But we also understand that networking and supporting existing community based resources with a more extensive and frequent fixed route bus network may provide the specialized access for those who need it while increasing mobility for the overall community. Such a model could even possibly offer some cost savings.
We look forward to working with DART to help address the serious mobility challenges facing the aging population in Sussex County and we encourage all residents, and especially those dependent on door to door transportation services, to let DART and your local and state officials know how important each ride is to you. We will be confronted with difficult choices, but collectively we can develop better solutions.
We will continue to write about this in coming months in an effort to keep you informed and, where appropriate, to solicit your support to insure that everyone can get a ride.
Kenneth S. Bock
deputy director, CHEER