A sign for the Orange County Transportation Authority's bus service. (Photo credit: unknown)

For sixteen years Paul Pieczentkowski used the Orange County Transportation Authority’s  bus service for people with disabilities to travel from his board and care group home in Laguna Beach to a rehabilitation center in San Clemente, where he gets a full range of therapy services five days a week.

Pieczentkowski, 52, has a brain injury, is unable to clearly communicate with others and needs constant assistance and supervision. But for years, his parents say, the special transportation program, known as ACCESS, got him to his day program on time and without problems.

That is, until the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) in October made major cuts in its regular bus service. The cuts largely eliminated several routes in South Orange County, including the three-tenths of a mile that included Pieczentkowski’s group home as a pick-up point for ACCESS riders. The agency isn’t required to provide the disability services, known as paratransit, in areas where they don’t have a regular fixed route.

Pieczentkowski now takes a daily taxi, a fixed fare service provided through OCTA for riders with disabilities. He rides three miles to another group home where he can wait for the bus while being supervised and cared for. But his father, Marshall Pieczentkowski, said the taxi can sometimes take up to two hours to arrive and costs $2,000 a year for the extra fare.

“There’s been times when they failed to pick up our son…[and] never show up because they dropped Paul’s call for a better fare and we are never notified,” Marshall Pieczentkowski told the OCTA Board of Directors at a workshop on paratransit services Monday. “I can go on about the failures of the same-day taxi.”

Such route cuts are among the choices OCTA has made to cope with rising costs and falling ridership.

Overall ridership has dropped more than thirty percent since the 2008 recession and continues to decline, but demand for transportation for individuals with disabilities is growing.

The agency decided last year to cut low-performing general bus routes concentrated in South County and shift those resources toward improving services along more frequented routes in denser, Central County cities.

But that also meant cutting service to the people like Pieczentkowski, who rely on OCTA as their only form of transportation.

The workshop Monday was designed for board members to gather information. No action was scheduled.

Problems with Paratransit  

OCTA’s bus service for people with disabilities, or paratransit, serves just three percent of OCTA riders, but makes up a quarter of the agency’s transportation costs, and those costs are rising.

Unlike the declining ridership on the regular fixed-route bus service, ridership on paratransit buses could increase by 40 percent by 2035, according to a consultant’s projections for OCTA.

Unfortunately, paratransit services cost far more than your average bus ride.

OCTA is mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, to provide paratransit services comparable to their regular, fixed routes. Some riders like Pieczentkowski qualify to be picked up directly at home, and the agency can’t limit how far or where people go each trip.

Nearly a quarter of 9,800 people who use ACCESS ride it more than five times a week.

Those services cost the agency nearly $45 per paratransit trip, compared to $5 a trip for a regular bus ride.

Paratransit buses themselves also cost more to operate, since they are hold fewer people and are therefore less cost effective.

“Paratransit is simply much less productive,” said finance director Andrew Oftelie. “There’s fewer people on each bus, it’s also much more expensive on a per-trip basis.”

At peak hours, OCTA needs 425 paratransit vehicles in service to accommodate 1,109 boardings, compared to 433 vehicles for the fixed route service, or 11,810 boardings.

Last August, in an effort to reduce costs for the agency, OCTA staff recommended the board double the fare for disabled riders who travel long distances, but the board voted not to raise fares.

The Transportation Authority has tried to mitigate the effect of cuts on disabled riders with its existing same-day taxi service, which ACCESS riders can take for the same fare, $3.60, for up to five miles.

Before the cuts, many riders living outside of the bus service area used OCTA’s taxi service to get to their nearest bus stop or another ACCESS pick-up point and transfer to the bus.

Officials initiated a promotion after last October’s service cuts to allow riders who are no longer in the service area make that transfer free of charge.

Paul Pieczentkowski has been riding the same-day taxi every day and could take advantage of the ongoing promotion, although his father said he was unaware of the promotion until it was mentioned at Monday’s meeting.

“We provide what we are required to provide, and we go above and beyond with our same-day taxi service,” said spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

Some riders, however, are hesitant to take the same-day taxi, not only because of the extra cost and the limit on the number of miles one can travel, but because the taxi drivers don’t always know how to handle their disability.

Zlotnik said the taxi drivers, who don’t work for OCTA, are required to take the same training class as their ACCESS drivers.

Joyce Benevides said her daughter Julie Ann Benevides, 48, rode ACCESS buses for fifteen years to her daily rehabilitation therapy until the cuts last October.  She said she is not comfortable sending Julie, who can’t speak or make decisions on her own, in a taxi.

“The first time they sent me a cab, it was a tiny little transit van. Julie is six feet [tall] plus, and the driver just stood there and didn’t know what to do with her,” Joyce Benavides said. “I didn’t feel it was safe for my daughter to be in a taxi with this man who couldn’t handle her.”

Joyce Benevides and Marshall Piezentkowski both said the regularity of ACCESS buses – the service is generally on-time, can be scheduled in advance and often sends the same drivers – is also an important source of stability.

“It’s important for [Julie Ann] because she has a lot of people on the bus, and the bus drivers all know her,” Joyce Benevides said. ‘They speak to her, they recognize her, it’s very good socialization for Julie.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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