Sussex paratransit under scrutiny as public transit gets review


State officials are concerned that paratransit costs are getting out of control, leading the Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) to take a critical look at public transportation.

DTC is a branch under the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) that provides 12.8 million annual bus and train trips. Sussex County contributes has just two of the 70 regular in-state bus routes, but it is eating up paratransit funding.

In the 2014 fiscal year, Delaware expects to serve 8 percent of its routes with paratransit services, 82.2 percent fixed routes and 9.8 percent rail.

So why does paratransit use such a huge chunk of the budget (45.4 percent), compared to the national average (10.9 percent)?

DTC’s $100 million budget comes 20 percent from ticket fares and 80 percent from state subsidies (revenue from services such as vehicle registration and motor fuels taxes). But DTC only earns back 16 percent on fares, while the national average is 30 percent return on every dollar spent.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that Delaware “provide paratransit or other special service to individuals with disabilities that is comparable to the level of service provided to individuals who use the fixed-route system.”

That means that, when providing fixed routes, such as buses from Georgetown to Dover, DTC must also provide complementary access to those who cannot access the route independently. That civil right is just like a convenience store providing wheelchair ramps or accessible restrooms, said Ken Potts, DTC director of development.

So DTC must pick up and drop off disabled riders anywhere within three-quarters of a mile of the regular route. That means a handful of bus stops becomes a 1.5-mile-wide corridor along the entire route. And that is where people are most likely to see the 22-foot-long paratransit vehicles.

“We think it’s important to educate Delaware about ADA and paratransit requirements,” said Lauren Skiver, CEO of DTC. Generally, the rule for paratransit passengers is, she said, “You get yourself to the service area. We are responsible to that service area.”

But last year, 79 percent of Sussex County’s 203,000 paratransit trips were outside of the true ADA service area. That includes locations outside of the three-quarter zone or people who don’t precisely fit ADA eligibility (such as senior citizens who don’t have a disability but still use paratransit).

By comparison, Kent County had 47 percent of its paratransit rides and New Castle had 19 percent of paratransit rides outside of ADA eligibility.

The ADA was enacted in 1992, when Delaware had multiple transit authorities. But Delaware’s paratransit services preceded the ADA, so Kent and Sussex counties originally had broader qualifications than the specific ADA-described area.

“They just got people where they lived and took them where they needed to go,” said Potts. “In 1990, that might be doable, with lower fuel and labor costs. … Now we have an unsustainable service. We need to find way to provide just for people who are eligible.”

People can register for paratransit services, but a section of DART’s Web site still says, “DART will provide transit services not required by the ADA to the extent that DART is not in violation of the requirements of the ADA and the demand … does not exceed available resources.”

“If you’ve lived in Delaware, you would rightly assume, if you have a disability, you have the right to be dropped up and picked up anywhere within the state. That’s how we do it here. But, under federal law, that is not what paratransit does,” said Geoff Sundstom, DelDOT director of public relations.

While state transportation officials said they don’t want to chop services, they may need to create alternate transportation to meet demands, strengthen the eligibility process to ensure equal service and help people understand what is required under federal law.

Because Delaware is a unique mix of rural, suburban and cityscape, DTC needs an innovative approach to transportation. Sussex County may see small, circulating vehicles that deviate from the regular service routes, versus the 40-busses common to cities.

The State must explore a variety of options for sustainability, and provide better access to jobs, school, shopping and other destinations.

DTC is exploring hours, routes, customer service, training and fares rates.

A University of Delaware study in 2007 “saw Delaware headed toward critical point. Nothing has chanced in 2013, but the problem is much larger and the cost is astronomical,” said Skiver. “To grow [services], we have to generate more revenue,” as, she noted, the cost of postage stamps, eggs and milk have nearly doubled since 1989, but New Castle County’s bus fare is still $1.15.

Basic fares in Kent and Sussex have not increased since 2001, although DelDOT representatives said some people have expressed a willingness to pay more for better service.

DART was set to hold a Rider Information Session on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the Lewes Public Library from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. The meeting was to include a short video presentation and information boards about the state of public transportation in Delaware, as well as the DART Title VI program.

People may provide comments on Delaware transit and Title VI until Friday, Oct. 4.

An informational brochure and a presentation is also available online at www.dartfirststate.com/RightFit. Input may be provided by calling 1-800-652-DART (3278), option 2, or emailing RightFitTransit@state.de.us. Send mail to DART Right Fit Transit; 900 Public Safety Blvd.; Dover, DE 19901.

Editor’s note: Soon after DelDOT and DTC announced plans to evaluate Delaware public transit, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt announced that Lauren Skiver would be leaving her position as CEO of DTC this fall, to head SunLine in Palm Springs, Calif. She was selected to lead DTC in June of 2012.

“Lauren has been a valuable member of our leadership team. During her tenure with Delaware Transit Corporation, she has focused on improving operating efficiencies, performance management and leadership development,” Bhatt wrote in a press release. “Lauren has been of great assistance in helping our agency prepare for a conversation this fall about the future of transit in Delaware. She will be greatly missed and we wish her all the best.”