Riders wary of proposed DART changes coming down pike

Local paratransit riders are concerned about planned fare increases, while people still want more public transit in Sussex County as a whole. And the Delaware Department of Transportation must juggle these demands while rolling out a public transit redesign.

Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) has taken a critical look at public transportation and is presenting its proposal to riders at a series of public hearings.

According to state transportation officials, Sussex County’s big problem is paratransit. Sussex only has two of the 70 regular in-state bus routes, but local paratransit is eating up funding.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that Delaware “provide paratransit or other special service to individuals with disabilities that is comparable to the level of service provided to individuals who use the fixed-route system.”

While state transportation officials said they don’t want to chop services, they’re trying create alternate transportation to meet demands, strengthen the eligibility process to ensure equal service and help people understand what is required under federal law.

Statewide, all fares will increase under DTC’s proposal. For example, regular fares will increase from $1 or $1.15 to $1.50 on Jan. 19, 2014, and $2 by 2015. Connector fares will jump to 60 cents, and eventually to 80 cents. Inter-county rates will be $2 per zone, and later, $2.60. Pre-purchased fare cards will still be discounted.

New Castle County will see some route and time expansions, while losing a couple rarely-used routes, and Kent County hours will be expanded to 9 p.m.

Sussex County may see fixed route expansions next summer, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt said. But the big change in Sussex is in paratransit.

The ADA was enacted in 1992, when Delaware had multiple transit authorities, and Kent and Sussex counties allowed seniors and others to receive paratransit benefits.

When providing fixed routes, such as buses from Georgetown to Dover, DTC must also provide complementary access to those who cannot access the route independently. DTC must pick up and drop off disabled riders anywhere within .75 miles of the regular route. That means a handful of bus stops become a 1.5-mile-wide corridor along the entire route.

But, last year, 79 percent of Sussex County’s 203,000 paratransit trips were outside of the true ADA-required service area. That includes locations outside of the .75-mile zone or people who don’t precisely fit ADA eligibility (such as senior citizens who don’t have a disability but still use paratransit).

“If you’ve lived in Delaware, you would rightly assume, if you have a disability, you have the right to be dropped up and picked up anywhere within the state. That’s how we do it here. But, under federal law, that is not what paratransit does,” Geoff Sundstom, DelDOT director of public relations, said earlier this year.

To rein in a runaway budget that is already heavily subsidized, the State must raise fares for the first time in 20 years. Delaware must also crack down on by limiting ADA benefits to people who are truly ADA-eligible. And, in the future, to be fair, everyone who applies for paratransit service must use the same paperwork and prove disability.

The ADA allows for 60-minute trip negotiation before or after the requested time, and fares will increase from $2 to $3 by March 2, 2014, and $4 by 2015. The no-show policy will be better enforced, so riders can be penalized for missing their bus.

Under the DTC’s proposal, people who are not eligible for ADA but who are currently registered within the paratransit system will still receive special transportation benefits. Non-ADA riders will still be granted rides as space allows. They will pay $6 per trip ($7 by 2015).

DelDOT officials said they hope to make things up to seniors after the changes by implementing a senior ride program in Kent and Sussex counties, for which the ADA does not provide. They said they are talking to other nonprofit and senior groups to discuss other modes of transportation.

“People will still get a ride on March 2. It might be a taxi… It could be a paratransit bus,” Bhatt said.

He wouldn’t give numbers on how much DTC hopes to save by implementing the changes. He said they’re waiting to see what happens.

Sussex County currently has two regular transit routes (Georgetown to Rehoboth and Georgetown to Laurel), as well as a summertime beach route and an inter-county connector to Kent. There is regular no service south of Georgetown or east of Delmar.

“We’re being as transparent as possible,” said Bhatt of the process of making changes. “We want to hear from our riders. We want to hear from the people impacted by this.”

People responded at a Nov. 5 hearing at the Georgetown Cheer Center. Ken More said he felt that decisions made by people “outside the bus” would cause “many questions and uncertainties for those inside the bus.”

After a 1996 motorcycle accident, Fred Hughes III is thankful for paratransit, but he said he frustrated with the proposed changes.

“What are people with mostly set incomes going to do?” Hughes asked.

Alice Trent echoed that concern, especially as she’s classified as non-ADA, so, “It’s $12 every time I need to go outside. What do I do? Decide if I want to have enough to eat that month?”

While the State will consider partnering with private groups for transportation, Andy Longacre emphasized that paratransit drivers have six weeks of training before carrying passengers.

“[Volunteers] are not going be trained at the same level as a DART driver,” said Longacre, president of Amalgamated Transit Union, ATU 842, of which Sussex paratransit drivers are members.

Tomas Newcomb expressed longstanding frustration people have had with scheduling. He said his young children had to wait alone at their school bus stop one morning because his paratransit had to arrive 30 minutes earlier than usual.

Other people told tales of missed doctor and court appointments.

“Transportation is key to everyone’s independence,” said Nancy Cordrey, describing the importance of her daughter’s part-time job, which she said would be undercut by higher fares and a less strictly structured travel schedule.

Some of those at the meeting said they felt scheduling should be done in Sussex County, where people are more familiar with the geography. Cheer employees described how some clients ride around the county for up to three hours before being dropped off at a nearby location.

State Rep. Dave Wilson (35th/Bridgeville) said he felt Greenwood citizens have been discriminated against for years, due to lack of any fixed service there.

William McCafferty, a DART rider of 23 years, said that a wider fixed-route area would alleviate strain on paratransit because many riders could easily take fixed route instead of taking space on specialized paratransit.

Patsy Brown is a paratransit rider who said she felt Sussex County is not getting the services needed, especially when huge housing developments are springing up on Routes 26, 54 and 17.

“There has to be a safe, reliable option door-to-door,” said Arlene Littleton, former Cheer executive director, adding that she feels her father would have been in a nursing home if not for paratransit and two daughters with cars.

The “Proposed Transit Redesign Plan” can be found online at www.DARTFirstState.com, at most public libraries, state service centers and at the reception desks of DART First State offices and DelDOT in Dover.

The public can submit official comments for the record by Nov. 15, online at www.DARTFirstState.com/publichearing or by writing to DART First State Public Hearing; P.O. Box 1670; Wilmington, DE 19899-1670. Call 1-800-652-DART for additional information.