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With ever-rising costs and constantly growing needs, combined with shrinking revenues, paratransit service is becoming more and more challenging to administer. To take some of the pressure off paratransit programs, transit agencies are enhancing travel training programs with mobility centers and adding flexible bus routes and more accurate in-person assessments to provide service to some seniors and people with disabilities. So far, the changes have not only cut costs, but have helped to create an environment that fosters independence for riders.
Portland, Ore.-based TriMet gives over nine million rides a year on fixed route to seniors and people with disabilities and one million rides a year on its LIFT paratransit system. Until one year ago, the agency used a self-certification process for paratransit eligibility. A person completed an application, and TriMet made a decision based primarily on the information provided on the application. However, staffers felt they weren't getting the information they needed to make the most accurate determination.
"This isn't a medical-based decision, it's a functional-based decision," Kathy Miller, manager, LIFT Eligibility and Community Relations TriMet Transit Mobility Center explains. "[Simply] having a disability does not make you eligible. You have to be prevented in some way from being able to use fixed route. You can't really tell that from a paper application." Plus, Miller adds, TriMet felt it was missing an opportunity to interact with applicants and let them know about other available services and training.
This led the agency to establish a new eligibility process - conducting in-person interviews with every applicant. TriMet contracted with Lake St. Louis, Mo.-based Medical Transportation Management to complete a functional assessment of each applicant's physical and cognitive abilities, and followed Easter Seals' Project Action's guidelines on conducting physical and cognitive assessments.
Potential participants complete an application. TriMet reviews it and schedules an in-person interview. If further assessment is needed, the applicant, accompanied by a mobility assessor, goes through an indoor simulated transit course with sloped ramps; a street crossing with a street light on a timer to test whether the applicant can cross soon enough to make it through the light; and a mockup of a low-floor bus to test the applicant's ability to board.
Then, they go on half-mile and quarter-mile walks in the neighborhood to see how they do in a real situation. The evaluation includes walking on different surfaces, crossing streets, and a fixed-route trip, using bus and light rail at the end of the assessment, if the assessor thinks the applicant has the ability.
The agency also incorporated the new assessment system into the travel training program it uses, RideWise, developed five years ago with Ride Connection, a volunteer organization located in Portland, which promotes independent travel among older adults and people with disabilities.
As a result of the program, TriMet is seeing a reduction in its paratransit ridership. Many riders are changing their eligibility status from fully eligible to conditionally eligible.
"Some people realize they just need temporary eligibility. Most significantly, one fourth of new applicants are opting out of the process before they come in for the assessment," Miller says, possibly because once they submit the application and learn more about the process, they decide they wouldn't be eligible.
The program also has increased TriMet's visibility within the community and provided a greater opportunity to educate the community about the service, according to Miller.
"About one-third of the people that come in, especially new people, bring a caregiver, family member or friend. That provides an opportunity for them to see how it works," she says.
One advantage that using the fixed-route system instead of paratransit provides, Miller points out, is the flexibility. Riders can choose whatever route and time works for them, take trips on a whim and don't need to contact anyone to cancel if they change their mind - paratransit riders have to schedule trips by 5:00 p.m. the previous day, according to TriMet's LIFT policy.
Miller adds that, overall, people value the service. "Once [applicants] went through the process, they felt it was fair, and not as burdensome as they [expected]...I believe that it improves peoples' lives to be able to use fixed route if that's the appropriate choice for them based on their functional abilities, and the vast majority of people are able to make it work for them," she says.
Mike Mullins, RideWise Supervisor, Ride Connection, agrees that many paratransit riders benefit from the ability to navigate the fixed-route world and gain, as he sees it, a "heightened level of independence, freedom and dignity that comes with being able to come and go as you please...choice comes back to you."
As part of its new in-person assessment program, TriMet created a transit mobility center and moved the facility into its transit mall in downtown Portland, a location with easy access to both its fixed-route and light rail systems.
"Fortunately, we had a facility in our transit mall that was already under lease to us," Miller explains. "The lease came up about the same time we were looking for a place, and we thought it was the perfect location."
The facility opened in January, 2010, with TriMet performing in-person assessments beginning that April.
To save costs on its assessment course, TriMet's shops built a mockup of a low-floor bus for use in the securement and boarding evaluation. The agency's bus stops program donated bus stop signs, benches and seats for the course to make it look more realistic. The city of Portland donated a street signal. TriMet hired receptionists and added three eligibility staff as well as another scheduler and dispatcher to schedule the trips to the mobility center.
Meanwhile, Phoenix-based Valley Metro has come up with new solutions to transition some riders from paratransit to other more affordable means to get to and from their destinations.
Based on a paratransit study the agency conducted in 2008, one of the primary findings was, like for TriMet, a recommendation to implement an in-person assessment process into its ADA certification program.
"We needed a more thorough system as a backbone [for making] eligibility determinations," Scott Wisner, customer service manager, explains. "The decision was to go to an in-person process before we made any wholesale changes to the paratransit system."
The assessments typically provide more accurate determinations, which can be an effective first step toward mitigating some of the demand, he adds.
The agency decided to take the recommendation a step further, integrating a mobility center into its in-person assessment process. The Mobility Center, unveiled in February, features a 40-foot bus and shelter set against a backdrop of photo murals depicting various transportation modes, multiple street ramps with different pitches and a streetscape.
"We created wall murals throughout the mobility course that simulate a real world environment," Wisner says. "We put in plants, murals of trains and buses, transit centers and a real bus stop. We tried to bring the outdoors indoors and make it look as real as possible, like part of the community. The scenes we took were from the actual community. A warm, open, bright facility really makes people at ease when they come inside."
The agency hired Los Angeles-based C.A.R.E. Evaluators to handle the ADA assessment and administer the travel training program.
Additionally, the agency plans to implement a new pass program for people that qualify for ADA paratransit service, or are conditionally eligible, providing them with a free bus and rail pass to further offset the demand on paratransit by subsidizing the cost to ride bus and rail.
"It's a very affordable option for those who can utilize bus and rail," Wisner says.
Valley Metro's Ride Choice program, designed to pair people with alternative transportation, such as a travel training program, coupons for cabs or volunteer rider programs also will run out of the Mobility Center.
The travel training program will teach people who are conditionally eligible for paratransit to ride the bus and rail with one-on-one training. Staff members evaluate applicants based on where they live, whether they are eligible for paratransit service and, if not, what other transportation options are in their area. If they are eligible, they identify opportunities to help them learn how to ride the bus or train.
Valley Metro received substantial buy-in from its stakeholders as part of the implementation of the Mobility Center, in-person assessment and travel training.
"We got feedback from them about every phase - scheduling the appointment, the interview and the assessment," Wisner says. "We had an open house. It was well-attended by members from the community [as a whole], as well as the disabled community. [We] got a lot of positive feedback [on] the design of the mobility center to the way the process is going to be run."
Ideas from the public that Valley Metro plans to use include installing a bathroom in the mobility course and more accessibility from the transit center to offices, public restrooms and the building itself.