another huge waste of money. one buerocrat said it might be better to can the program and just give the old folks free taxi rides!

Dial-a-Ride becoming challenge for seniors Vans for disabled and elderly overtaxed

Connie Cone Sexton The Arizona Republic Feb. 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Valley senior citizens, who for decades found Dial-a-Ride to be a cheap and convenient way to get around, are having a hard time finding a seat.

As cities comply with a federal mandate to give priority to the disabled, fewer and fewer able-bodied seniors are able to use the door-to-door service.

And although there are other transportation options, they are a confusing mix, lacking Valley-wide coordination.

"We have calls constantly from seniors looking for transportation," said Laraine Stewart, chief operating officer for the Arizona Area Agency on Aging. "It's one of the biggest problems facing the elderly. The (Dial-a-Ride) systems are overtaxed. Some people have long waits. We have heard horror stories."

Like many cities across the country during the 1970s, Phoenix began offering the Dial-a-Ride program as a way to shuttle immobile seniors to appointments and errands. Over the years, other Valley cities began offering similar services.

People are grateful to get a ride, said Robert Burback, a longtime Dial-a-Ride driver. "They say, 'This has made it possible for me to have a life.' "

But the combination of time-consuming cross-Valley commutes and the declining availability of seats is leaving many Phoenix-area seniors wondering just how to get from Point A to Point B.

They could take one of the many buses offered by Valley Metro. But seniors tell Stewart and others who deal with the elderly that buses aren't an option: They can't walk to stops, they don't understand buses or they are uncomfortable using them.

So they call Dial-a-Ride. But when they can't get a ride, some seniors just give up and stay home.

Impact of ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act has had a huge effect on the Dial-a-Ride program, said Al Villaverde, deputy public transit director for Phoenix. Cities across the country were given until 1997 to create a system that would improve services for the disabled, including honoring trip requests within 24 hours.

"Most major transit systems have had to pare back or eliminate the demand response of the elderly because of the high demand of the disabled," Villaverde said.

The more Phoenix improved its Dial-a-Ride, the more demand there was from disabled and seniors alike. Five years ago, "demand response" seniors accounted for 45 percent of Phoenix Dial-a-Ride passengers; disabled riders account for 55 percent. For the fiscal year ending in June, senior riders dropped to 31 percent.

The change was greater for the East Valley Dial-a-Ride, a program that covers Mesa, Tempe, Gilbert, Chandler and Scottsdale. In fiscal 2000-01, senior riders accounted for 76 percent of riders. In fiscal 2004-05, the percentage of seniors was 45 percent.

"Senior riders who've been accustomed to same-day rides when they call up in the morning find there are no available slots," Villaverde said.

Not a smooth trip

Dial-a-Ride systems operate within a boundary, requiring riders to transfer from one city's Dial-a-Ride to the next. So if a senior wanted a ride from, say, Sun City to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, he would have to use four Dial-a-Ride services: Peoria, Glendale, Phoenix and East Valley, which serves Scottsdale.

But state, county and local officials hope to create a coordinated transportation system. This spring, the Regional Public Transportation Authority will be looking at how to coordinate the Valley's eight Dial-a-Ride services, which operate independently. Meanwhile, the Maricopa Association of Governments, or MAG, will conduct its own study to look at human-services transportation programs in the Valley that serve seniors, the disabled and special-needs populations.

Dial-a-Ride programs in the Valley are paid for with federal and local dollars, but some programs in other areas of the country also receive state support.

The MAG study is in answer to the national United We Ride program, a 2004 order by President Bush to create streamlined transportation programs for the disadvantaged, including seniors.

Maureen DeCindis, a MAG transportation planner, said the study could lead to a regionwide voucher system that would give seniors discounts for taking a taxi.

In addition, the study may "look at ways to maybe do a brokerage service so there is one number to call when they want transportation information," DeCindis said.

Jim Dickey, director of the Public Transportation Division of the Arizona Department of Transportation, is helping oversee Arizona Rides, the state's version of the national United We Ride program. The state will look at the agencies and groups that receive federal money for transportation as a means to cut duplication of services.

"Instead of two organizations sending vans to same place, you just send one van," Dickey said.

The East Valley Dial-a-Ride is an example of a successful coordination, he said. But it took about 10 years to get all the cities aligned. Riders can travel within those communities without having to transfer.

But there are a lot of economic incentives not to implement a regional plan because extended routes would just increase the cost, said Betsy Buxer, director of the transportation project for Easter Seals Arizona. The average Dial-a-Ride trip costs an operating agency $29, compared with $3 for the same trip on a bus, she said.

Although it may be difficult on the communities, it would certainly make it easier for the riders, Buxer said. "It's annoying to the rider," she said. "You are so close to another city, and you can't go there."

Long waits for rides

Phoenix resident Jean Booher, 80, gets around on regular bus routes. She would be happy to use Dial-a-Ride, but she doesn't always know what time she needs to come home. And when calling Dial-a-Ride for a return trip, "you may have to wait two hours or more," she said.

Carmen Verdoza, who works at Phoenix Devonshire Senior Center, agreed that it can be bothersome for seniors to wait. "They want to go home when they want to go," she said.

Phoenix offers an alternative to Dial-a-Ride called Reserve-a-Ride. The system will pick someone up and take him or her to a senior center, grocery store or appointment within an 8-mile radius of home. The system is free, but there is a sign that says the recommended donation is $1 for one trip and $5 for 10. Although it's just a suggestion, seniors such as Booher say it's too much money.

A recent national survey conducted for the non-profit American Public Transportation Association indicated that 82 percent of those 65 or older worry they will be stranded and unable to get around when they can no longer drive. Nationally, only about 7 percent of the public-transit riders are 65 or older, according to the association.

"Mobility security, just like financial security and medical security, needs to be planned for," said William Millar, president of the association.

There is a change in the sense of identity when someone stops driving, said Morris Okun, an Arizona State University professor of psychology.

"It's kind of a hallmark or kind of an indicator of thinking of oneself as becoming an old person, and that's why it's so difficult to not drive anymore," Okun said.

Even if someone makes his way to a bus stop or Dial-a-Ride transfer point, he is particularly vulnerable to air pollution and extreme temperatures, Okun said.

Dial-a-Ride's space crunch has forced creative approaches here and across the country.

Possible solutions

Some cities, like Ann Arbor, Mich., began contracting with taxi companies to give those 65 and older a discounted ride. Others, like Charlotte, N.C., held "demonstration rides" to make seniors more comfortable riding a bus.

To address the concerns of those intimidated by public-transportation systems, Glendale and Phoenix hold education classes, bringing a bus to senior centers and taking attendees on field trips.

"Lots of people have never used the bus, or they don't know they're improved," said Buxer, of Easter Seals Arizona.

Phoenix, for example, replaced 80 percent of its fleet with low-floor vehicles to allow for easier access with lowered steps.

To help seniors and the disabled know what transportation is available, Buxer has been compiling a list of providers in the Valley for 25 years. This year's directory, which was commissioned by Phoenix, lists about 100 human-service agencies, private companies and public entities that provide rides to the elderly and the disabled.

To improve their transit service, Phoenix, Glendale and Tempe operate free neighborhood circulators, minibuses that operate on fixed routes and connect with regular Valley Metro bus routes. The concept, which is in use in several communities around the country, began in Sweden, Buxer said.

The circulators go where the buses don't and may be an alternative to Dial-a-Ride for some older riders, she said.

Phoenix's circulator operates in Ahwatukee, and there are plans to add seven more in neighborhoods in Phoenix through 2010.

Scottsdale, Mesa and Apache Junction offer taxi subsidies for those older than 65. In Scottsdale, the riders can obtain 20 one-way travel vouchers each month that pay 80 percent of a one-way taxi trip up to $10. In Mesa and Apache Junction, riders can get 10 $1 coupons for $2.50.

Phoenix is considering offering taxi subsidies. Glendale recently began offering taxi subsidies for those riders receiving dialysis or other therapies for pulmonary, cardiac, stroke or cancer treatments.

There is another door-to-door option for seniors, one that isn't very well publicized and on purpose.

Maricopa County offers a Special Transportation Service, a free program for older adults and those with disabilities. The program requires a 48-hour reservation. Riders can go from one end of the county to the other without having to transfer.

Eddie Caine, acting assistant director for administration, said the county's program can't afford to advertise. "We are on a limited budget," he said. Being too popular would be too great a strain on the system.

"But there is huge demand," he said. "The people who need our service the most are the elderly, and many are a kind of soft-spoken."

Caine worries that some seniors will just give up and not push to find a ride. He noted a 1999 elderly-mobility study commissioned by MAG.

"It described how some folks older than 65 make less than one trip a day," he said. "That means you're only traveling every other day from the house. But the average household in this region makes eight trips a day. We travel to dry cleaning and the grocery store. . . . And here are these older people. There are people who really would love to get around, too."

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