The Orange County Transportation Authority board of directors Monday postponed a decision on whether to double bus fares for disabled riders who use the agency's home pick-up service, after hearing concerns about the effect higher fares would have on people who depend on the service as their only means of transportation.
The proposal to increase these fares from $3.60 per ride to $7.20 per ride is part of a planned overhaul of the Transportation Authority (OCTA) fare structure. Under the new structure, riders would be charged based on how far they travel rather than the current flat fee for bus routes countywide.
While OCTA board members will vote on other proposed fare hikes in October, they tabled the proposed increase for disabled riders indefinitely after nearly a dozen riders spoke out during a public hearing held by the board Monday morning.
“Right now ACCESS users pay…around $144 a month to get to and from work. To increase it doubly would cost around $288,” said Elizabeth Campbell of the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled in Anaheim, an independent living center.
ACCESS, a reservation-only service that picks up riders within three-quarters of a mile from any OCTA bus stop, accounts for 3 percent of total bus ridership, and 25 percent of the agency’s total costs.
The original proposal submitted by OCTA staff would split the county into three zones, and double the fare for those whose trips traverse all three zones. Riders who fall into this category make up roughly 3 percent of all ACCESS riders.
Campbell said many clients are not only using the service to get to work and doctor’s appointments, but also depend on it for social contact.
“Just having the rates doubled can have a great impact on someone with a disability wanting to go out and have a regular, fulfilling life,” Campbell said.
As costs rise and demand for para-transit services increases along with the aging population, many agencies are struggling to cover costs of the service, which is mandated by the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.
The average para-transit trip costs OCTA $43. But the cost jumps to $80 when a rider is going from one end of the county to another, said Sean Murdock, director of finance and administration.
That’s higher than the national average of $29 per para-transit trip, according to a September 2016 report by the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University.
Some public speakers at Monday's hearing questioned why the agency has not proposed incremental fare increases. They also suggested a fare structure that charges riders a flat fee up to a certain mileage.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is an OCTA board member, also objected to language in a staff report that said the higher fare would not only offset the costs of the para-transit services, but potentially "deter some riders from making longer discretionary trips on ACCESS, which could provide a significant cost savings."
"I don't care if the trip costs $1,000. The reason we have [this program] is we're serving a population that has certain needs," said Spitzer, who made the request that the proposal be tabled. "And we're doing a dangerous thing by equating the purpose of the trips with money."
Recent route changes and fare increases would especially impact disabled residents in South Orange County, said Paul Brennan, and independent living instructor with the Dayle McIntosh Center.
"There are many resources that people with disabilities use...and the majority are in the northern part of the county,"
said Brennan said. "ACCESS is a federally mandated program, and until that criteria changes I don't think people should be penalized."
Jeffrey Lalloway, an OCTA board member and Irvine city councilman, also expressed his displeasure with the proposal.
“We agreed to build a streetcar in Santa Ana, for what will end up costing a tremendous amount of money…and at the same time we’re going to ask a very need group of folks that need these services to pay more money,” Lalloway said. “I just don’t agree with it.”
The board directed OCTA staff to look at alternatives to fare increases, such as contracting out the service, and come back with a more detailed report about the cost of the para-transit system.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.