Citing both a growing population of residents using its paratransit service and a substantial cost benefit to itself and its clients, TARTA on Thursday approved a new policy of providing free rides to qualified TARPS customers when they use regular-route buses.
The first wave of baby boomers reaching retirement age, coupled with an increasing need for paratransit services across the nation prompted the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority to implement the program, said Tom Metzger, the agency's transportation superintendent. The board of trustees Thursday passed the resolution without opposition.
"When they get on a bus with 50 people instead of two, the benefits are tremendous," Mr. Metzger said.
The standard round-trip Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service fare is $4, but the transit authority estimates a typical paratransit ride costs between $20 and $25 in overhead and operating expenses.
Free fixed-route rides -- an idea transit officials have discussed for more than a year -- will be available to certified TARPS passengers starting Nov. 1. TARTA's one-way fare for disabled passengers is 50 cents -- half the standard fare.
The Americans with Disabilities Act obligates transit authorities to provide alternative service for those whose disabilities keep them from being able to ride regular buses for all or part of their travel needs.
TARTA officials say demand for such service in Toledo has grown by the day. Through July 31, TARPS ridership grew by 15.8 percent this year, to 172,713 from 149,151 in 2011.
In July alone, ridership was up 18.1 percent compared to the same month in 2011. But through June, year-to-date revenue had increased by only about $30,300 from last year, to $615,869.
In 2008-09, when TARTA took over direct operation of its paratransit service instead of contracting it out, ridership was 137,204.
Amy Kryspin, a TARPS rider from Toledo, liked what the new policy would do for both her fixed-income budget and her schedule. TARPS, she said, can sometimes be restrictive because clients have to make reservations 24 hours in advance and are on a "holding pattern" until the bus arrives.
"It's a good thing for our riders," she said. "It makes [TARTA] more approachable, more accommodating. Both services do what they are supposed to."
Asked what passengers in wheelchairs would do if a bus arrived with both of its wheelchair tie-down spots in use, TARTA board member Deb Angel, who has ridden her wheelchair onto TARTA buses, said she has observed drivers call their dispatcher to request a second bus in such situations.
People who might otherwise take TARPS to get to appointments or scheduled events need to allow ample time in their schedules if that happens, she said, but "I can attest, this does work."
Mr. Metzger confirmed that TARTA has bus operators "in the bullpen" for such emergencies, so no one is left "on the side of the road."
TARTA General Manager James Gee said the program is designed to allow those TARPS riders who are able to take the regular service at any given time the "incentive of choice."
The transit authority will be providing sensitivity training to its bus operators that includes customer location assessments and an evaluation of each passenger's condition and cognitive skills, Mr. Metzger said. The agency plans to retrofit a reserve bus for use in training bus drivers to help disabled passengers with boarding and alighting from vehicles, he said, and will develop simulation training for passengers to help those accustomed to TARPS' door-to-door service learn to recognize landmarks near the bus stops they'll need to use.
He did not provide cost estimates, but said taxpayer cost for the project would be "minimal."
TARTA officials cited an estimate from the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus, that 31,000 passengers used its regular bus service last year instead of paratransit because the bus rides were free.
"We anticipate the growth to be steady," Mr. Metzger said of TARPS passengers switching to the fixed line.
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