Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Demand for Demand Response Service

A noteworthy feature of the recent testimony of various suburban officials to the House Mass Transit Committee was the emphasis on demand-response service. Two of the speakers, Mary Keating, the Administrator of Ride DuPage, and an unnamed person representing the Kane County Paratransit Coordination Council, devoted their remarks exclusively to suburban demand response service.

Other collar county speakers spoke favorably of such service. Marty Buehler, the Lake County Director of Transportation, for example, stated that during Lake County's transportation planning process over the past few years expanded paratransit service--both in terms of eligibility and service coverage--was an issue that came up at every meeting. He continued that paratransit and reverse commuting--

are rapidly growing non-traditional transit service markets that need to be addressed not only in Lake County by regionally. It is our opinion that the future of transit service in the suburbs is to be found in these "non-traditional" markets; fixed route bus service in the collar counties requires a complete restructuring. (Pg. 15 of 22)

It is no wonder that the collar counties are dissatisfied with Pace. Pace carries fewer passengers than it did in 1985 despite the heavy increase in population and jobs in the collar counties. The message from the collar county representatives to the Mass Transit Committee was that for the most part fixed route service is ineffective and needs to be replaced by feeder service to Metra stations and demand response service elsewhere.

Current demand response--often called "dial-a-ride"--services in the collar counties provide point-to-point transportation to targeted populations that include more people than just those eligible for ADA paratransit service. For example, veterans may get rides to and from their homes to the regional veterans hospital. Or senior citizens living in a municipality may get rides to and from destinations within and even outside their municipality. Rides may be supplied by Pace vans, taxi services or other transportation services.

The sponsoring agency pays the ride provider a subsidy for providing the ride to "their" rider. Riders tend to be billed by distance. The kicker is that the fares paid by riders appear to cover only between 10-20 percent of the cost of the ride. This is a farebox recovery ratio half of Pace's current farebox recovery ratio, which itself is significantly lower than the farebox recovery ratio of the CTA and Metra. The RTA Act imposes a 50 percent farebox recovery ratio for the transit system as a whole.

The existing demand response services in the collar counties are funded through a hodgepodge of grants from local governments, federal grants funneled through the RTA, and monies kicked in by "community service partners" such as senior citizen centers. The thrust of the testimony from the collar county representatives is that the RTA should provide a larger and steadier funding stream so that demand response service can be expanded throughout the suburbs.

This approach poses a real challenge to the RTA. Fully funding an operation that has a 10-20 percent farebox recovery ratio can put a big dent in an operating budget really quickly. However, rather than taking over full responsibility for funding demand response service, perhaps the RTA could pledge a steady funding stream that would cover some of the cost of the demand response service. Local authorities could then continue to cobble together money from other sources to keep these small, but significant demand response operations going. It appears from the testimony that collar county leaders may be willing to trade some of the current fixed-route Pace bus service for such a steady funding stream.

One can argue that if transit-oriented development policies are enacted and enforced even the suburbs can develop sufficient density to support traditional fixed-route bus service. Subsidizing demand response service, the argument goes, is counterproductive because it allows the collar counties to lose sight of the importance of TOD development.

The more persuasive argument, however, is that the higher cost of demand response service on a per ride basis will provide a stronger incentive for the collar counties to grow relatively dense, pedestrian-friendly and accessible environments that are attractive to seniors and the disabled and will reduce the demnd for demand response service.

It is also true that the demand response services utilize eligibility criteria that the collar counties can use to channel non-rail transit service to targeted populations like seniors and the disabled. Where Pace service and its associated subsidies are consumed by everyone regardless of income or transportation alternatives, demand response service can be limited to the "truly needy." Thus, one can argue, demand response service is more efficient because it targets transit funds to those who don't have alternatives to the private auto.

If this recent testimony is any indication, we will be hearing more from the collar counties about demand reponse service in the transit debates over the next few months.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the last idea of limiting DR service to the "truly needy." In Boston, the RIDE (paratransit) is limited to registered passengers who prove they have a disability. Could there be a similar registration process based on income or something? An area of potential collaboration between Pace and human services agencies? Potential use of JA/RC funds?

A good tactic for Pace might be to whittle down that 80-90% subsidy rate by trying to cut costs. Could a major infusion of dispatching technology help by chaining trips or creating more efficient just-in-time schedules? Or could fares be adjusted to reflect non-revenue time too?

I agree that the RTA should do whetever it takes to incentivize TOD. But I'm guessing the collar counties probably see DR more as an afterthought for a vocal constituency than as operating resources that could someday serve TOD, unfortunately. But I could be wrong? Also, the RTA could establish a dedicated stream for DR, and localities could bid to match it based on local matches, or even riders served. This could be a real opportunity for Pace should get involved at the local level to get its real customers here to step up - VAs, senior housing, etc., and come off as a part of the solution, not the problem.

In any case, it's probably beneficial for the RTA to harness this suburban demand for transit in the interests of the broader coalition - as long as the subsidy to Pace and Metra doesn't outstrip the sales tax revenues from the collar counties!