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May 2013

Partnerships, Subsidies Help Curb Paratransit Costs

With the demand and costs to provide paratransit services continuing to escalate, many transit agencies have found ways to help curb costs, including partnering with private nonprofit groups and adult day health care facilities as well as subsidizing taxi trips.

By forging these partnerships, which often flourish because of their shared vision to provide transportation options to the elderly and people with disabilities, transit agencies are not only saving money and taking rides off their own paratransit services but also providing those communities with better, more customer-focused services. The financial savings, in turn, is also saving transportation agencies from having to make the ever unpopular decision to make cuts to their fixed-route services.

METRO Magazine spoke to several transit agencies about the successes they have found through paratransit service partnering and subsidizing and the positive impact those practices have had in the areas they serve.

King County Metro Transit
Seattle, Wash.
King County Metro’s Community Access Transportation (CAT) program began as a demo project in 1997 and slowly grew over the years to expand mobility options for people with disabilities and seniors by developing partnerships with community agencies in the region.

Fifty-percent of CAT’s customers are ADA paratransit eligible, with the other 50% ineligible but still either disabled, elderly or economically challenged. There is no certification process for a majority of the services provided through CAT.  

Through King County Metro, CAT has two programs — Advantage and Vanworks — providing some combination of vehicles, maintenance, driver training, insurance and fuel. Advantage agencies are responsible for providing drivers and scheduling, insurance and at least 150 trips per month for CAT eligible customers, while Vanworks agencies must provide drivers and scheduling, backup drivers, bookkeepers, insurance and at least 50 one-way trips per month for CAT eligible customers. There are also grants  available for Advantage agencies to cover fuel, insurance, and administrative costs for nonprofit agencies that serve low-income customers and can demonstrate a need for financial assistance.

“When we first started out, the focus of the program was on underutilized county resources,” says Don Okazaki, CAT program manager/transportation planner for King County Metro. “We would retire our Access vans when they had up to two years of service life left, but when they were used for CAT program where they aren’t used as much, we could get five or six years out of them. It was a very low cost program to start.”

The agencies for both programs benefit because they can customize their transportation services to meet their clients’ needs.  

“The initial focus was to create a program to fill gaps in service, and as we saw it was much more cost effective than Access, there was obvious benefits to expanding it,” says Okazaki.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of CAT vans has gone from 53 to 100 with boardings going from 141,368 to 312,795 passengers, 52% of which are non-ADA registered riders. Meanwhile the average cost per ride on King County Metro’s Access has gone from $36.15 to $44.59 from 2007 to 20012, with the current average cost per ride on CAT holding steady at around $5.02. When comparing the cost to provide trips on Access versus CAT, King County Metro’s projected annual cost savings has nearly quadrupled, going from $1.3 million saved in 2007 to $5.1 million saved in 2012.

Okazaki explains that while the money King County Metro saves is nice, the CAT program’s success is its ability to provide better options.

“The focus is to still provide transportation for people in the region, so these rides CAT is providing, whether they are taking riders off of our Access services or not, enable King County Metro to provide mobility to the community,” he says. “That is truly our focus — the mobility — and not exactly the cost savings.”

Due to the slumping economy, growth of the CAT program has slowed since King County Metro has fewer funds to put toward expansion. Okazaki explains, however, that the agency is still open to taking on more partners.
“We kind of froze the list in the last couple of years because we didn’t have any more money for vehicles or operating expenses,” he says. “What we have done, then, is begin targeting more of the larger agencies that could do the community or neighborhood shuttles and urge them to apply for state grants, so we could then look into providing them with the matching funds and vehicles.”

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