Wheeler: Balancing efficiency with client needs is a challenge for Raleigh transit officials

The statistics are startling:

• Number of trips that Raleigh’s assisted transportation program coordinates each day – 1,500.

• Cost of those trips – more than $20,000 a day.

• Increase in demand for Accessible Raleigh Transportation over three years – 50 percent.

• Portion of the city’s transit budget devoted to ART – nearly 50 percent.

• Portion that comparable cities spend – 13 percent.

And those facts follow even more astonishing numbers that the city found when it commissioned a study in 2009 to get a grasp on the ART growth: The increase in demand over the previous five years was 300 percent; in costs, 800 percent.

You can read a full study of Raleigh’s paratransit system here.

“The path that we’re on, the cost of services is not sustainable,” says David Eatman, the city’s transit administrator. “We have had to make some changes.”

No kidding. Those changes began in January when a contract with MV Transportation Inc. kicked in. Previously, Raleigh was the only major city in the nation that relied solely on cabs to transport residents who qualified for services under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, about 200 of ART’s 1,500 daily trips are consolidated into van pools – a change that is projected to save the city more than $500,000 in each of the next three years.

Unfortunately for Eatman, he’s in the unenviable position of balancing dollars with disrupting the lives of the disabled in a low-density suburban city that has been slow to embrace planning for public transit. During an hourlong interview, he used the word “challenging” at least 10 times.

The problem is that those “trips” aren’t just numbers. They are people trying to get to work, to hair appointments, to dialysis, to dinner. They are people used to the convenience of cabs and to the care of drivers they know and who help them.

Linda and Brian Lewis, who both have been blind since birth, have been using ART for almost two decades and are distressed about the idea of van pools. The congenial couple often finish each other’s sentences.

“Something that should take an hour to do could end up taking three or four,” Brian says from his table in the couple’s West Raleigh townhome. “If it raises our travel time ...”

“People will be late for work,” Linda says. “One of these days, they’re going to lose their jobs. Employers are going to say, ‘Hey, this transportation stuff is getting to be a habit’ ...”

“And if you’ve got a transportation problem, that’s not our problem,” Brian says.

‘The ones who get hurt’

Brian, a customer service representative for Time-Warner, and Linda, who works from home as a medical transcriptionist, tell the story of a visually impaired friend, Bonnie Merritt, who had a stroke last year. Merritt’s mobility is hampered now, and when she recently struggled to board one of the ART vans, the driver told her he wasn’t allowed to help, the Lewises say.

“They don’t care about us,” Linda says of city officials. “We’re the ones who get hurt.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the city to offer curb-to-curb service within three-quarters of a mile of anywhere it provides public transportation. If users need help getting from the house to the curb, however, other provisions need to be made, Eatman says, whether that means using a wheelchair to get onto the accessible van or employing a personal care assistant. People pay $2 per trip for the service.

“The transition from a taxi to a van is a difficult one,” Eatman acknowledges. “It’s different, and we understand that. We’re trying to deal with any situations that arise on a case-by-base basis.”

Eatman says the city also is assessing the more than 4,200 ART users to make sure those who have mobility difficulties have the services they need.

“It’s been a slow, gradual change so we can provide a level of communication to those clients who are being impacted for the first time,” Eatman says. “When someone calls up and they have a critical doctor’s appointment or other critical transportation needs, we have to be responsible. It’s all about how we can do this most efficiently.”

Public transportation efficiencies are difficult in pedestrian-unfriendly Raleigh, whose physical size has grown from 55 square miles in 1980 to 144 square miles today. Just a little foresight about sidewalks could have made his job so much easier, Eatman points out.

“If I’m in a wheelchair, and I live near a sidewalk, I can take the CAT bus,” he says, noting that all of the city’s 80 buses, transporting 20,000 people a day, are handicapped-accessible. “If there’s not a sidewalk, I have to use paratransit.”

‘Matter of sustainability’

The 2009 study found that paratransit riders – those who can’t be served by fixed-route public transit – often were going to several common destinations, such as the Lions Clinic for the Blind and WakeMed dialysis. The study recommended that the city consolidate such trips with vans. Raleigh city councilman Thomas Crowder was on the subcommittee that commissioned the study, and he voted with five other council members last fall to approve the contract.

“I fully appreciate missing that convenience, but at the same time, it’s like everybody else having to be creative in order to meet the economic demands we’re all dealing with,” he says. “With all of our needs, we’re always looking to be more efficient. It’s a matter of sustainability, financial sustainability.”

Brian Lewis worries that cost is all the city considered.

“I don’t think they looked too much at the specific needs of our people,” he says.

Eatman, however, emphasizes that cabs will always be appropriate in some situations and will remain a part of the city’s paratransit toolbox.

“We have to work with clients individually,” he says. “We can’t call 300 people and say, ‘Hey, everybody’s on the van.’ We have to slowly build this system so we can provide the level of customer service and individual service to do this successfully.”

Defining success for both the city and its residents must be difficult, I say, when every dollar in a government budget is generally a dollar that affects a human being.

“Ding,” Eatman says, nodding vigorously. “That’s it. Every number you’re dealing with is somebody’s life.”

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