What Next, Limos?
For Barbara Rolle the bus means freedom.
Two months ago she had trouble finding a ride to take her son Ryan to a speech therapist. He needs to go three times a week because the two-year-old boy can't yet form words as he's supposed to.
On other days it's essential to take Ryan to the doctor or go to the Walgreen Drug Store down the road to get medicine for her ailing mother. One day Rolle didn't have a ride to the grocery store; it took her and her 12-year-old daughter, Racquel, almost two hours to walk home with an armful of bags. She just couldn't afford the bus.
Rolle's life has been a little easier since the Riviera Beach resident learned she's eligible for a free bus pass. She uses it to go shopping, to take her son to the doctor, and for trips she deems necessary.
"It's priceless," Rolle says with a smile.
Rolle's bus pass is also a bargain for taxpayers, but Palm Beach County transportation bureaucrats don't seem to care much about that.
The issue is why thousands of those like Rolle -- whom the bureaucrats call "transportationally disadvantaged" -- haven't been given Palm Tran bus passes. Instead the county provides thousands of private-contract van rides each month to low-income residents, which are less cost-effective for taxpayers and provide less flexibility.
The people known as transportationally disadvantaged (TD) are low-income residents who need a ride to deal with basic needs but can't afford one. By giving bus trips whenever possible, rather than van transportation, the savings for taxpayers is substantial. The van costs about $13 a trip for each rider. A Palm Tran pass costs $37 a month for unlimited bus rides.
The bus pass savings has been documented on a small scale at Healthy Start, a nonprofit agency that helps low-income pregnant women and new mothers receive health care. Transportation consultant Susan Stechnij, who set up the bus pass program there, said Healthy Start clients last year received 135,000 rides on Palm Tran at a cost of $116,000. That saved taxpayers $1.4 million compared with providing TD clients with a van ride.
In contrast the county last year spent about $1 million in state and county money to provide only about 105,000 van rides. The trips are considered a last resort for the elderly, disabled, and low-income riders who can't get other transportation. Besides being expensive vans are more cumbersome. Clients must call 24 hours in advance to reserve one and go at a specific time, and trips are restricted to specified purposes.
This raises the obvious question of why more of the county's 45,000 TD residents aren't switched from vans to buses.
Stechnij and Palm Beach County commissioners have been asking that question for six months. The bus bureaucrats are being criticized for lack of planning and wasting taxpayer money.
Stechnij complained at a county commission meeting two weeks ago that she's only gotten the runaround after repeated attempts to work with Palm Tran and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the county agency that oversees Palm Tran. At that same meeting, County Commissioner Burt Aaronson was visibly annoyed that staff at the two agencies haven't shown progress in expanding the program.
And at an MPO meeting last week, Commissioner Carol Roberts demanded to know why MPO still had not developed a plan for distributing bus passes to allow unlimited usage by TD clients.
"I want to see the plan, or they're not going to get any funding," says Roberts, who is also an MPO board member. "It's as simple as that."
There's no argument that bus service is more efficient than vans. The disagreement is over who gets to run an expanded bus pass program.
The state gives about $900,000 to the MPO to ensure that county residents don't stop eating or miss a doctor's appointment just because they can't pay for a bus ride. The county chips in another 10 percent, and the MPO distributes most of this money to Palm Tran.
Along with the money, the state mandates that the funds be used as efficiently as possible. The question then is how to best distribute the funds.
Transportation consultant Stechnij says she can expand the bus pass system and distribute passes more efficiently than the county. The administrative fee for her model, she says, is about $480 per 1000 clients. The county's administrative fee is almost four times as much.
County commissioners, Palm Tran, and the MPO all know about Stechnij's distribution program, which identifies clients through several Palm Beach County social service agencies. All three parties generally agree that Stechnij's program could be used as a model for cheaper bus passes.
But for six months nothing much hashappened.
In April the MPO board -- which includes county commissioners Roberts and Aaronson -- directed staff to examine Stechnij's program. The staff didn't. In June the board gave the same order. Again nothing happened.
"The county commission and the MPO board two times have said, 'Look into this program, contract with this program, we want this program,' says a frustrated Stechnij. "Why is it that staff has not done this?"
Palm Tran and MPO staff give a variety of answers: The MPO had a bus pass distribution system of its own; the agency had to go through certain procedures and determine if other proposals existed; there were questions about who would qualify to receive the passes.
"She has talked to us about expanding the project," MPO executive director Randy Whitfield says of Stechnij, "but we haven't seen any details."
The bigger question for Palm Beach County taxpayers is why Palm Tran doesn't have a plan for a pass distribution system that everyone agrees will save money and provide better service.
Commissioner Roberts for one is tired of waiting. She wants transportation bureaucrats to develop a cost-efficient plan quickly. If they don't there're going to be a lot of angry people at Palm Tran's door, Roberts warns. "I think this puts their feet to the fire.
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