Breathe easy for a little longer, riders of public transportation. Fare and service changes to DART and paratransit have been postponed from Jan. 19 to a yet-to-be-determined later date.
Operating under Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) recently released an extensive new plan, focusing on hours, routes, customer service, training and fares rates. The changes were scheduled to begin in two weeks, but DTC is still working through the public comments, which were due in November.
“We went through process and received comments on proposals that — rather than rush through with implementation — the Secretary decided that he wanted to take some time to consider what we heard,” said Geoff Sundstrom, DelDOT director of public affairs.
DTC will continue a redesign once they “finalize their reaction” to public comments, for which officials thanked the public.
“We’re looking at the entire plan. I wouldn’t say that anything is off the table. That’s the point of the entire process,” Sundstrom said. “It doesn’t mean we’re backing out of anything.”
“Changing the way the State delivers transit service is not just a matter of dollars and sense. We understand that people with real problems and real challenges are affected by the changes we make,” he added.
Originally, regular fares were increasing to $1.50 on Jan. 19 and to $2 by 2015. Under the proposal, connector fares would jump to 60 cents, and eventually to 80 cents. Inter-county rates would be $2 per zone, and later, $2.60. Pre-purchased fare cards will still be discounted.
Meanwhile, alternate paratransit plans are being designed to meet demands, create an equal paratransit eligibility process and help people understand what is required to be provided under federal law.
In March, DTC was originally planning to implement a 60-minute negotiation period before or after the requested paratransit pick-up time; fare increases from $2 to $3 by March 2, and $4 by 2015; and a more strictly enforced no-show policy so riders could be penalized for missing their pre-scheduled bus. But DTC also hopes to improve service and clarify riders’ expectations.
Such changes were proposed because, despite government subsidies, Delaware public transit is operating at unsustainable levels. Several factors contribute to the problem.
Although grocery and postage stamp costs have nearly doubled since 1989, New Castle County’s bus fare is still $1.15. Basic $1 fares in Kent and Sussex have not increased since 2001.
Sussex only has two of Delaware’s 70 regular routes, but paratransit is a big issue. At current rates, Delaware expects paratransit to carry 8 percent of riders — mostly in Sussex — but cost 45.4 percent of the budget in 2014.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that Delaware provide paratransit “that is comparable to the level of service provided to individuals who use the fixed-route system.”
However, Sussex and Kent actually provided benefits to people beyond those criteria, sometimes not requiring the same application process for all, or allowing elderly riders ADA benefits, though they lack a disability.
Most often, paratransit riders get special door-to-door service, even outside of the .75-mile radius DART is required to provide beyond the regular bus route.
Gas and service costs no longer make that a sustainable practice at current fare rates.
Generally, the rule is “You get yourself to the service area. We are responsible to that service area,” said Lauren Skiver, then-CEO of DTC, in 2012.
“In general, there’s a good deal of concern about fare increase, which you would expect,” Sundstrom said. “Nobody wants to pay more for anything. Of course, we have to be very sensitive about increasing the price of a crucial service, for the most part, for what are low-income individuals.”
People not eligible for ADA but who are currently registered within the paratransit system would still receive special transportation benefits, such as special rides, as space allows. They were scheduled to soon pay $6 per trip ($7 by 2015), but possibly to be transported in taxis or private senior-care vans.
People were also concerned that DTC was not “specific enough about what the alternatives will be to a conventional paratransit vehicle,” which was also expected. DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt,” Sundstrom noted, “has said … that riders should not be concerned that they will not have a ride once the redesign is under way, because everyone will have a ride. We will still be providing a service. It may just look and feel different to what they’re used to.”
No date has been set, even for announcing the new plan, but Sundstrom said the goal is the first quarter of 2014.
An informational brochure and a presentation is available online at www.dartfirststate.com/RightFit.