New dates announced for state’s para-transit changes

After a delay, the Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) has announced a new deadline for changes to public transit, allowing riders more time to get used to the transit system redesign. Sussex County’s large para-transit population won’t be affected until July and September, and fare increases for all public transit riders will stretch over three years, instead of two.

“It’s not just about money. It’s about providing better service,” DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt said, emphasizing that the public-comments process was not just for show but actually played a part in adjusting the original redesign. “We did hold that process seriously, and we take our responsibility seriously.”

The DTC, which operates under the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), released an extensive new plan in late 2013, focusing on hours, routes, customer service, training and fare rates. Originally planned to begin in January, the changes were delayed in implementation until Feb. 9.

Those in Kent and New Castle counties are most heavily impacted by changes to fixed-route service (regular bus rides), with DART routes mostly expanded there and fares increased by 25 percent, the first increase in decades.

Statewide, regular fares will increase to $1.50 on Feb. 9, then to $1.75 in 2015 and $2 in 2016. Reduced fares will be 60 cents, increasing to 70 cents and then 80 cents. The daily pass costs $3.15 starting next month, increasing to $3.70 and $4.20 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Inter-county travel will cost $1.50 per zone, increasing to $1.75, then $2.

Para-transit changes to begin in July

Sussex has only two fixed routes, plus a summertime coastal route, so para-transit is the big-ticket item in that county.

The purpose of updating the system is twofold, said Bhatt.

“It’s a $50 million budget. We’re the only state with 50 [45.4] percent of the budget going to para-transit,” which serves only 8 percent of riders, mostly in Sussex. “Also, the service side or human side — for $50 million a year, we are providing poor service. People are waiting a long time for rides. People are having hard time holding down jobs because” para-transit sometimes runs very late.

Para-transit price changes will now begin July 1. Originally meant to transport people with disabilities within .75 miles of regular fixed routes, Sussex para-transit has often accommodated non-disabled senior citizens and driven longer distances than mandated.

As of July 1, there will still be options for a ride, but people who don’t fall under the auspices of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will pay more than ADA-qualified riders.

Currently, all para-transit riders pay $2. On July 1, ADA riders will pay $3, then $4 in July of 2016. Non-ADA riders can expect a smaller price hike than originally proposed: at $4 on July 1, increasing to $5 in 2015, and then $6 in 2016. Para-transit connector fees (charged each time a para-transit trip crosses county lines) will increase from $2 now to $3 in July, then $4 in 2016.

Starting around September, all para-transit applicants will be required to participate in a standardized certification and recertification process. All new applicants will have to complete paperwork and an in-person assessment. All customers must be recertified and will be notified in writing 90 days prior to their expiration date.

Any riders 65 or older who are now eligible based solely on age must also be recertified. Those with a qualifying disability will continue to receive service. Those who are not eligible can use Senior Citizen Affordable Taxi (SCAT) program.

Conditional eligibility will be offered to people who are sometimes eligible for para-transit (examples include those with night blindness, or in the case of weather-related issues, such as extreme heat for asthmatics or mobility limitations when there is snow and ice).

DTC will also crack down with their no-show policy. Riders can become ineligible if they skip or are not ready for a pre-reserved ride.

New services, partnerships could offer more options in Sussex

DelDOT and DTC will also use the next few months to meet with stakeholders, including riders, community leaders, Cheer and Modern Maturity centers and much more.

Public comments on the propose changes also revealed that people need more details about para-transit alternatives. Sometimes an entire bus isn’t needed to carry a few people, so DTC hopes to establish partnerships with private groups that already provide elder transportation.

“We’re proposing options that weren’t readily out there, or weren’t … in a volume that people were confident,” said Rich Paprcka, DTC’s acting executive director.

For instance, taxi service was suggested, which could deliver people more directly to their location, with no reservation or buses required. However, Sussex Countians rarely see taxis today, which made that notion discomforting. Paprcka said DTC may look to broker with a taxi service — which other states do now, with some success, Bhatt added.

“The fear of the unknown is so great for these folks that they’re willing to keep the poor service they have now,” Bhatt said. “[Let’s] have a conversation and explain to you exactly what it is, to allay some of the fears…

“Success is defined as providing better service,” Bhatt continued. “I guarantee, once we are able to start implementing some of these changes, people will say, ‘Even through it is costing more, I’m able to get to my doctor appointment or I am able to keep my job.’”

Nationally, public transit agencies spend an average of 10.9 percent of their costs on para-transit, 17.1 percent on rail and 72 percent on fixed-route. Based on the national average, Delaware’s 45.5 percent to para-transit is a major expense.

“We’re not ever going to be at 10 percent,” due to Delaware’s unique features, Bhatt said. “But we’re likely to drive that number down, closer to a 70-30 split.”

Meanwhile, getting a financial handle on things may help Sussex County expand. Most Sussex Countians don’t have a convenient nearby fixed route, so by the time they drive to a Georgetown bus stop, they might as well just keep driving to their destination.

To address that issue, DTC will test a circulator service in several locations, including Millsboro to Georgetown and Georgetown to Rehoboth Beach. Additionally, a DART garage is coming to Lewes in 2015, which could lead to year-round beach resort routes, instead of the current summer-only service.

“We’re grateful for the input from our customers and service providers,” Paprcka said. “We believe the final plan reflects positively on the public-comment process.”