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Disabled Facing Curbs in Transit Program

Transportation: Budget woes threaten Access Services' low-fare, same-day rides.

July 06, 2002|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tens of thousands of severely disabled Los Angeles County residents stand to lose cheap, same-day transportation because surging ridership has busted the budget of the nonprofit group that provides their taxi and van service.

Much of the region's transit for the disabled is provided by Access Services, an organization that essentially acts as a contractor for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which pays for more than 90% of the smaller agency's budget.

But the two are facing budget troubles, and are considering a plan that would save money by reducing service to riders who often have no easy alternative to public transportation.

Each day, a fleet of about 1,400 Access-contracted taxis and vans blankets the county, giving rides to almost 52,000 passengers with disabilities ranging from blindness to nearly complete paralysis, many of whom can't use regular buses and trains.

Ridership, about 2.2 million trips a year, has increased nearly tenfold in less than a decade. Those trips don't come cheap. Highly individualized--Access vehicles often carry just one passenger and rely on special equipment such as wheelchair lifts--the rides are far more heavily subsidized than other forms of transportation.

Access pays the vans and taxis about $26 per trip, compared with an average of $1.36 paid by the MTA to subsidize each ride on its buses and trains.

The MTA and Access provide those services in part because of federal requirements. The Americans With Disabilities Act mandates that a disabled person be able to receive specialized taxi or van pickups after making a reservation one day in advance.

Access goes beyond that, however. Since its inception in 1994, it has offered low-cost, door-to-door rides the same day that a reservation is made.

Though some critics complain that rides are late, that drivers sometimes fail to show up and that complaints are mishandled, patrons and critics alike agree that the service's popularity is soaring. And as ridership has grown, so has the cost of the subsidy, making the program a victim of its own success.

The program's beneficiaries are people such as Harley Rubenstein, a Long Beach man who uses a wheelchair because of a nerve disorder. He can call Access and, in about 45 minutes, have a van arrive at his home to take him to the San Fernando Valley. Such a trip costs $4, the maximum charge for an Access ride.

Rubenstein said he relies on the service in emergencies. "It's something we've grown used to," he said. "It's a lifeline."

The MTA board has launched an audit of Access, and says it will decide the program's fate by November. Among the options is a takeover by the MTA, with the service being run out of the MTA's downtown headquarters.

More likely, insiders say, is that the MTA will keep its relationship with Access as is and decide whether to maintain, boost or slice the service's budget. Officials say anything short of a $10-million increase in the MTA's proposed $58-million outlay for Access next year will almost certainly lead to the loss of low-fare, same-day service.

The decision to audit came after projections showed that the agency could soon find itself spending $75 million to $100 million annually if ridership keeps climbing.

"We've got to get this under control," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble, who has headed the agency for less than a year.

To do that, the transit agency may fall back to the federal requirements. Under consideration is a move to split the service provided by Access in two. Most riders would get guaranteed rides for reservations made one day in advance. For same-day service, officials are considering having riders pay a flat $9 fee or providing them with a voucher that would contribute about $13 to the cost of a ride.

The new same-day ride proposal could include more problems than its high cost.

Passengers are likely to depend more than they currently do on private taxi companies to provide the rides, and representatives of those companies have recently voiced reservations about carrying disabled passengers.

Additionally, the same-day rides would not be guaranteed, would not be subject to federal guidelines on timeliness and might end up being limited to a fixed number.

But for Access and the MTA, the bottom line is that costs would be kept in check by reducing ridership an anticipated 18%, according to Richard DeRock, Access' chief executive. "It's not something I want to do," he said. "But it's necessary at the moment."

That angers advocates for the disabled, some of whom are working feverishly to find non-MTA funding and cuts within Access that will help keep their service untouched.

"We're glad to have a few months to work this out but, really, we feel squeezed," said Kathleen Perrin, head of the Paratransit Riders Coalition. "We're worried we're going to lose some of our independence."

She said that, particularly in Los Angeles--with its sprawl, congestion and poor accessibility for the disabled--fast, cheap transit service is a must.

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