The Austin Chronicle

Special Transit Users Fear Cap Metro Cutbacks

By Kimberly Reeves, June 2, 2006, News

Capital Metro is tightening its belt on Special Transit Services, a move that is drawing a firestorm of protests from disability advocates and the ire of the Urban Transportation Commission, which has taken up the issue in at least two recent meetings.

Any transit agency that receives federal funding must make reasonable accommodations for the blind and disabled that live within the agency's transit corridors. That could mean buses or para-transit vehicles or, in some cases, cab services to and from locations. Capital Metro calculates its current para-transit budget accounts for 600,000 trips a year for the agency. According to the agency, each of those trips costs an average of $46.

Para-transit services are both noble and necessary, but they're also eating up a lot of Capital Metro's budget. Nancy Crowther of Capital Metro, who has been the agency's point person on the issue, says it amounts to 2% of Capital Metro's riders accounting for 20% of the transit agency's budget. Crowther told the Mayor's Committee for People With Disabilities the budget line item on cab rides alone was $3.5 million a year. To not review those kinds of costs would be irresponsible, she said.

"To be good stewards of our taxpayers' monies, we need to tighten up our very loose eligibility process so that we can have services available to more people," Crowther said. "We need to make sure we have services available for truly eligible people."

Capital Metro has put proposals out to tighten up eligibility, review the eligibility of those applying for service and limit door-to-door transport. Mark Thompson, who teaches the blind how to use both special and regular transit services, considers such proposals alarming, having seen similar belt-tightening measures in Dallas impact his sister, who is blind and was never fully able to negotiate crossing busy streets when curb-to-curb service was discontinued. This is not just a ride in a cab, Thompson said – it is the livelihood and independence of thousands of people in Austin.

"I have to say I have problems if this money is going to be used for other purposes," Thompson said. "These services should not be reduced for our citizens who need it the most, and it certainly should not be used to build other projects that they need."

Capital Metro has softened some of its proposals. Crowther says the door-to-door transit service will continue because the savings from discontinuing it were considered negligible. The eligibility screening will likely be more stringent for future, rather than current, applications for para-transit. The agency also wants to take a more proactive stance on integrating the blind and disabled into the regular fixed-route transit system, teaching them how to access and use regular bus service.

Capital Metro also may take some measures for excessive "no shows" but only after an interactive voice recognition system is implemented to provide 24-hour access to both set up and cancel para-transit appointments, Crowther told the Committee for People With Disabilities. Right now, appointments can only be canceled during business hours.

The issue is not providing funding for commuter rail – as Thompson might suggest – but providing additional para-transit services for more people, Crowther said.

"We trying to make it as user friendly as possible, but with the growing demand in the community, it's making the service less cost effective," Crowther said. "If we could get to the point where our services could meet the needs of all of our citizens, without taking up too much of the budget, then we'd want to do that. In cases where costs go up like this, companies have to look at what we can do to preserve our funds."

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