Daily Journal Guest Perspective
November 25, 2015, 05:00 AM By Vincent Merola
These fare raises will have a significant long-lasting negative effect on people with disabilities, especially those who rely on and frequently use SamTrans services. The vast majority of these riders are on fixed incomes, making even slight increases painful to bear. Adult fares will increase by 25 cents to $2.25 in 2016 and another 25 cent increase will be added in 2019. Nobody really likes it when the costs of things go up. I fall under this category. Having recently moved to the Bay Area by way of Connecticut — a place with virtually zero public transportation — I have come to use SamTrans quite frequently. I enjoy hopping on the ECR in Redwood City to get to and from work. The public transit system in San Mateo County serves me well. I’m able, and therefore willing to pay the increased fares.
SamTrans Board of Directors also voted to raise fares for its RediWheels/RediCoast paratransit services. On its website, SamTrans states, “paratransit rides are for persons with disabilities who cannot independently use SamTrans bus service.” It goes on to state that under the Americans with Disability Act, transit agencies are required to provide paratransit service. The law requires transit agencies to provide paratransit service comparable to the level of fixed-route service and that they can charge no more than twice a fixed-route fare. Presently, the one-way fare for paratransit in the county is $3.75. The Board of Directors voted to increase that by 50 cents to $4.25 in 2016 and another 50 cents in 2019, bringing the total one-way fare to $4.75 by that time. Both of these increases will bring the fare just under the maximum allowable limit under the ADA.
There is something we can do to alleviate these pressures. After receiving public input, SamTrans (thankfully) decided to keep the paratransit Lifeline fare at its current rate of $1.75. If you are unfamiliar with this SamTrans program, that might be due to the fact that it’s not easy to find on its website. A search for the term “Lifeline” at samtrans.com produces five seemingly unrelated results. One would need the Paratransit Rider’s Guide to understand the program. Here, the guide states that only people on Supplemental Security Income, General Assistance or Medi-Cal may be eligible for the Lifeline reduced fare program. This criterion simply does not go far enough to help the disability community. It needs to be expanded to include other low income riders.
Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security retirement have average monthly payments of $1,146 and $1,294, respectively. For a single-person household, that’s roughly 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Any rational person would consider those numbers to be low income, yet these recipients would not be eligible for the Lifeline service.
In a county with such a high cost of living, people on fixed incomes are often forced to make every penny count. At our center, we already hear from people on fixed incomes not able to afford the cost of transportation to senior centers or to visit friends and family. We even hear from people on fixed incomes forced to make the choice between purchasing food or medicine. When the cost of RediWheels/RediCoast rides goes up next year and then again in 2019, these consumers will have even more tough decisions to make. By then, a regular round trip paratransit fare will be a whopping $9.50.
The fixed route fare increase will not prohibit me from getting to work or from visiting friends for dinner and drinks. You see, I am not on a fixed income and I’m able to pay the added 25 cents. But for San Mateo County residents with disabilities on fixed incomes, a $9.50 ride to see family, visit a doctor or to pick up medication is an unaffordable luxury.
SamTrans needs to promote the Lifeline program better and it needs to expand the program’s eligibility to include more low-income riders.
Vincent Merola is the systems change coordinator at the Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities — an Independent Living Center located in San Mateo.