Byrdie Byrd was already waiting in her wheelchair outside a medical clinic on Commerce Avenue in Longview when the RiverCities paratransit mini-bus arrived to pick her up Wednesday.
Using the mechanical lift, driver Michael Durnell raised the 27-year-old Kelso resident and her chair into the bus. He strapped the chair to the floor and then attached a seatbelt around Byrd.
Byrd, who survived cancer at age 14, had one leg amputated to her mid-thigh and was getting adjusted to a new prosthetic leg. After finishing her physical therapy appointment that afternoon, she needed to be dropped off just a few blocks away. Stopping the bus at 16th and Delaware, Durnell unstrapped Byrd and lowered her and her chair to the sidewalk.
Then he was off to New York Street to pick up a group of adults with physical and mental disabilities at Life Works. As the bus continued on to West Longview, the men and women aboard sang, "You Are My Sunshine," and "London Bridge Is Falling Down."
One by one, Durnell dropped them off at their homes, where caregivers greeted them outside.
Riders such as Byrd and the Life Works group are the people the paratransit service was intended for. But paratransit ridership — and costs — have shot up rapidly in the Longview-Kelso area over the last five years. Now transit officials say they're going to curb the trend through better screening of applicants and improvements to regular service. The idea is to save money by making sure only those who really need it use paratransit service, which is intended for disabled people who are functionally incapable of riding the regular fixed-route buses.
'It's overwhelming us'
The Cowlitz Transit Authority, which oversees the publicly subsidized urban bus system, didn't know until last year that it legally could request more medical information from applicants. Nearly everyone who applied for paratransit service was accepted.
RiverCities Transit manager Corey Aldridge recalled that in his first week on the job last year, "I said, 'So how do we handle denials?' And they said, 'We don't deny anybody.' That's how I knew we needed to take a closer look at paratransit."
By federal law, transit systems must provide door-to-door service to disabled riders who live within three-quarters of a mile of fixed bus routes. Regardless of how high the demand or the cost, the service must be supplied to remain in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
However, the demand for paratransit service in the Longview-Kelso area has soared 44 percent in the last five years, RiverCities Transit officials said. By comparison, fixed-route ridership rose only 14 percent between 2007 and 2011.
At the beginning of this year, paratransit ridership hit a record high, exceeding 6,000 rides per month before tapering back down to an average of about 5,370 rides, transit officials said. Ridership this year is up 1,488 rides so far compared to this time in 2011. Between 2008 and 2011, paratransit drivers' hours increased 56 percent, requiring two additional drivers.
"It's overwhelming us. I feel like I'm running late all the time," said driver Durnell, 35. "Once we're behind, we're really behind. … It's a very stressful situation."
Transit officials expect the pressure on paratransit to ease soon. In June, the transit authority hired a new mobility manager, Brad Windler, who has been tasked with screening paratransit applicants and calling doctors with follow-up questions to determine ridership eligibility. He also is developing a travel training program in which volunteers teach people what bus to take and how to read a route map so they can transition from paratransit to fixed-route buses.
"Just because you have a disability does not automatically qualify you for the service," Windler said. "It's a service for disabled people who can't functionally use the fixed-route."
The cost of running a paratransit bus, which essentially functions like a taxi service, is significantly higher than running a fixed-route bus. On average, one fixed-route trip — defined as the time from boarding to getting off the bus — costs $4 to $6 per passenger, according to Aldridge. If ridership doubles, it doesn't cost the transit service any more because existing buses can handle the increased demand. By contrast, the average cost to pick up and drop off one paratransit passenger is $35 to $40 for every trip, taking into account the driver's salary, gas, vehicle maintenance, the time involved and the dispatchers.
Even though paratransit passengers account for a small share of RiverCities' total ridership, Aldridge said paratransit consumes about 40 percent of the authority's $2.8 million operating budget. Currently, RiverCities Transit has 1,400 to 1,500 paratransit clients. The 14 paratransit buses, which seat 12 to 15 people, are running at full capacity. Some days, every driver and every vehicle are on the road, Aldridge said.
Consultants who prepared the 10-year Transit Enhancement Plan adopted in 2010 found that about 35 percent of paratransit passengers stated they were capable of riding the fixed route.
More convenient fixed routes
Aldridge and Windler say they have "all sorts of ideas" about why local paratransit ridership has surged. RiverCities Transit is the only agency they know of that hasn't screened applications for functional ability, Aldridge said. In some cases, a social worker rather than a doctor will fill out the application for the client. The problem is, a social worker lacks the medical training to decide whether a heart condition a patient once had, for example, actually is a functional impairment to riding the fixed-route bus, transit officials said.
Some people shy away from fixed routes because they don't know how to use the system. Others prefer the convenience of door-to-door service. Aldridge said he hates to say it, but River Cities Transit's fixed routes aren't user-friendly or speedy. The fixed-route buses run once an hour. Transit officials' top priority now is getting the fixed-route system redesigned to better cater to riders' needs, he said.
In November 2008, voters approved a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase to support the bus system, which at the time was named Community Urban Bus Service. The sales tax increase gave the transit authority an extra $1 million to $2 million in annual revenue to shore up finances, expand routes and cut wait times from an hour to half an hour. Planning and phasing in the changes is happening gradually over several years.
The hope is that as fixed-route service improves and people reach their destinations faster, paratransit ridership will decrease. Having to reserve a ride a day in advance and planning your day around it can be a hassle for paratransit users, Windler said (see sidebar to learn how the paratransit service works).
Also, RiverCities Transit already has begun more closely scrutinizing paratransit applications, which Aldridge said need to be renewed every three years. For instance, using a power wheelchair isn't an automatic qualifier because the fixed-route buses have lifts. Some power chair users have the functional ability to ride a block or two down the sidewalk to a bus stop instead being picked up in front of their house, Windler said.
Aldridge emphasized that transit officials would rather err on the side of approving someone rather than denying people who need the service.
"We want this service to be here for the people who need it, and we'll always be here for the people who need it," Windler added.
Kelso resident Lynn Martin, who is disabled with neck and back injuries, said she began riding paratransit a month-and-a-half ago to get to doctors' appointments in Longview.
"It's very convenient, and the drivers are very nice. It's a wonderful service, as far as I'm concerned," said Martin, 61. "This is the ticket for me."