The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted Thursday to increase spending on services for the disabled by $5 million, enough to keep up with inflation but insufficient to ward off a scheduled cut in services starting in August.
Some directors of the agency said they will continue to look for ways to maintain some of the paratransit services, including same-day rides at a reduced cost.
The spending decision came on the same day that the MTA board gave its unanimous support to decentralizing the sprawling local bus system into five smaller service sectors, each with its own governing council. Still to be ironed out is how much power the MTA board will delegate to each of the regions.
MTA Director Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor and chairman of a Valley group exploring a breakaway from the MTA, warned that board members will "have a war on our hands" if they dally too long in establishing regional control.
The MTA leaders face another emotionally charged issue as they continue to ponder how much service to provide for the disabled, and how to pay for it.
Currently, patrons of the county's largest paratransit provider, Access Services Inc., can call a dispatcher 24 hours a day and get picked up for a ride in a special van or car in as little as 45 minutes. The cost, depending on distance traveled, is $1.50 to $4.
But confronted with a 30% surge in ridership, the board of Access Services voted two months ago to cut services starting in August, because it feared it would not meet its $63.8-million budget. More than 90% of that money comes from the MTA.
The proposed cuts include requiring riders to schedule pickups a day in advance. If riders want same-day pickup, they would have to pay much higher fares or use a taxi subsidized for up to $13.50.
Dozens of advocates for the disabled and paratransit users--many arriving from all corners of the county in their wheelchairs--spoke out passionately before the MTA board Thursday to ask for $10 million in additional funding to maintain the current level of services.
"This issue is huge for those of us who use paratransit," said Yael Hagen, of Chatsworth. "Without the ability to have flexibility in this service ... we stand to lose our ability not just to get to places but to live life, to deal with unexpected things."
Some speakers said they live on fixed incomes and cannot afford the higher fares. Others have protested that taxi cabs have been known to reject riders with wheelchairs or guide dogs.
In contrast, another speaker told board members that the high cost of accommodating disabled riders is hurting service for others.
"I am concerned that this authority is paying too much [for paratransit] and too little for its [other] constituents," said Kymberleigh Richards, a spokeswoman for Southern California Transit Advocates.
The MTA currently provides $1.65 or less in subsidies for every bus or rail ride, but $25.68 per paratransit ride, according to the agency.
The scheduled cuts would still leave the transit giant in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which only requires next-day services, MTA staff members said.
"We think this allows them to provide ADA service, plus a little bit extra," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble. "We think it is a good deal from our part."
But advocates for the disabled say the cost of service should not be an issue.
"Don't disable the disabled," said Charlotte Brodie of Mission Hills, whose daughter relies on paratransit. "Now that the disabled have found their independence and freedom, don't take it away from them."
County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, an MTA board member, asked the agency to look into the possibility of allocating "some funds to provide some services" above and beyond those authorized Thursday.
Times staff writer Kurt Streeter contributed to this report.