Limo service? RTA chairman laments cost of paratransit
Operating paratransit buses, like this hybrid that operates in Elgin and Schaumburg, is expensive.
courtesy of Pace
One transit service that hasn't created headlines this fall is paratransit — the ride program for people with disabilities.
But that doesn't mean it's not newsworthy.
It's grade separation month in the suburbs. The state announced last week it will build an overpass bridge at the junction of the Union Pacific Railway tracks, Roosevelt Road and Kautz Road near Geneva. The $26 million project will reduce traffic congestion and accidents. Meanwhile this week, an underpass at Belmont Road and the BNSF Railway tracks in Downers Grove is expected to be dedicated. This grade separation is more than double the overpass project, with estimated costs at $59 million.
This week's column is sparked by a lengthy Daily Herald edit board session with Regional Transportation Authority Chairman John S. Gates Jr.
Gates came in to discuss the recent funding feud between the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra, but he also made a lot of observations about the transit system in general.
A large chunk of transit revenues come from sales taxes and they're divided by a formula — the CTA gets 56 percent, Metra 32 percent and Pace 12 percent. But before those dollars are awarded, paratransit is funded first — this year receiving about $136 million.
"It's a civil right. It has to come right off the top," Gates said. "You send out a van every time somebody schedules one. The more volume you have, the more money you lose.
"It's not like other systems ... where the more volume you have, the more money you make or the less money you lose. That's the issue, and as the population ages and gets more infirm, the volumes go up faster than the rest of the system," Gates explained.
"It's a limousine service, but it's a federally mandated limousine service that we have to provide," he added. "The farebox pays 10 percent, we lose a ton of money. ... It's hugely expensive, but it's something we have to do. It's the law. It's a civil right."
As someone who sat through some incredibly emotional Pace meetings in 2008 and 2009 where paratransit riders took the agency to task for marathon van rides, I don't know if I'd call it a limousine service. I do know paratransit — which costs users $3 per ride — is very expensive to provide.
And I also know I'm no expert on the subject. So, I checked in with Pace for reaction. The agency provides paratransit for both Chicago and the suburbs.
Spokesman Patrick Wilmot said Gates was "essentially correct in his description of how the service operates, but I think most people who use paratransit wouldn't characterize it as 'limousine service.'"
He added, "This is basic transportation that is a lifeline for people with disabilities to have access to their community."
The challenge is to operate the service in a cost-effective way that complies with federal law and satisfies customers, Wilmot said.
For example, Pace uses computers to schedule trips, which increases productivity but leads to some longer rides, he said.
And, what about paratransit growth? Pace predicts ridership will increase from 3,812,000 in 2012 to 4,040,000 next year — a 5.9 percent spike.
The reasons for the upward trend are numerous, Wilmot said.
"These include the simple fact that people are living longer thanks to better medical care, (and) that there has been a movement in the disability community toward independent living that increases reliance on public transportation."
Pace privatizes a lot of its paratransit service, which includes outsourcing labor and vehicles.
"We estimate that we could save 10 percent off our operating costs for paratransit if there were a source of funds that allowed us to have a Pace-owned fleet of paratransit vehicles," Wilmot said.
He added: "The issues of (Americans with Disabilities Act) funding aren't unique to the Chicago area. Transit systems across the country are dealing with these exact same issues and the answers aren't clear. We'll do our part by continuing to operate paratransit service in a way that maximizes both efficiency and customer convenience."
Definitely food for thought. And that's where you come in. Drop me a line at email@example.com.
Reader Larry Floria of Libertyville has a beef with a red-light camera at Route 120 and Route 12 in Lakemoor that nabbed him en route to visiting his daughter in Wisconsin.
"Last month on one of these trips, I made a right turn onto Route 12 and received in the mail a red-light ticket. After reviewing the video, I made the turn while the traffic to the right was turning onto Route 120 on a green arrow. I may not have come to an absolute stop during this turn, but as I indicated in my response to the ticket I virtually did so," Floria wrote.
"What I do not understand is that if you are truly concerned with safety (some studies have shown that the presence of a red-light camera increases accidents), then why is there not a right-turn green arrow for traffic turning onto Route 12 — like most similar large intersections have? It would appear that the village and its contractor are only interested in collecting ticket fees and not providing safety for its residents and people like me who will now avoid this area and all of the businesses nearby."
Lakemoor Village Manager David Alarcon quickly responded when I asked him about Floria's concerns. "The village does not own or operate the traffic signals at this intersection," Alarcon noted. "They are owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Transportation. Any changes to the traffic control configuration would be at the discretion of IDOT.
"This intersection is within the corporate boundaries of the village of Lakemoor and (the village) has jurisdiction to enforce laws and ordinances at this intersection. It is also our responsibility for the handling of any emergencies to include vehicle crashes at this intersection.
"I encourage your reader to review the video online and if he/she believes they made a complete stop before making the turn, I highly recommend the violation be contested in person or through our contest by mail option," Alarcon concluded.
Gotten any right-turn red-light camera tickets lately? Drop me a line.
Do you find dreary November evenings a drag? Are you lonely and looking for new transportation friends? Well, it's your lucky day, because Metra is holding a series of budget hearings in which they will explain about possible fare hikes. The fun starts Thursday, Nov. 1, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Kane County Government Center, Building A, 719 S. Batavia Ave., Geneva, and Crystal Lake city hall, 100 W. Woodstock St. More hearing dates to follow or check out metrarail.com/metra/en/home.html.
Just grit your teeth, DuPage County, and drive through this latest Route 56 (Butterfield Road) project zigzag. Batavia Road just north of Route 56 will be closed for three weeks for intersection work. Detours along Route 59 will be posted. The closure should last until Nov. 2. It's all part of a $52 million Route 56 makeover.
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