State bill would keep transit for elderly, disabled available

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A state lawmaker will try to fast-track a bill to keep an estimated 1,800 disabled people in Allegheny County from losing their transportation service in September.

Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, will try to make the county eligible for a state program that covers 85 percent of the cost of shared-ride, on-demand paratransit service. Currently, the program, called Persons with Disabilities, excludes Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.

"With the crisis that the Port Authority is in, one of the groups that will be significantly and negatively affected is the group that uses ACCESS," the paratransit service for the elderly and disabled, Mr. Vulakovich said last week.

The authority board has approved a 35 percent cut in all public transit service, largest in the agency's 48-year history, effective Sept. 2, to cover a projected $64 million budget deficit.

With 46 of 102 bus routes to be fully eliminated, large parts of the county would no longer be covered by the federal requirement that paratransit service be made available to disabled people who live within three-fourths of a mile of a fixed mass transit route.

Port Authority and the county have long exceeded that requirement, offering countywide service to disabled people. In September, though, the transit agency intends to revert to serving only those within the three-fourths-mile zones, to reduce costs. That would leave an estimated 1,300 people without ACCESS service on weekdays and 1,800 without service on weekends, said Jeff Parker, a member of the Committee for Accessible Transportation.

Because of the county's long commitment to ACCESS, which is regarded as a national model for paratransit service, "people over the last 30 years made a lot of life decisions based on the fact that ACCESS was there. It's really going to turn over a lot of people's lives to lose this," he said.

"These are people who will have no means of getting out of their homes," Mr. Vulakovich said.

The state program provides reimbursement for transportation services that aren't eligible for funding under other programs, including service to those outside the three-fourths-mile mandated zones. It is administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Allegheny County was excluded because it already was funding border-to-border paratransit, Mr. Vulakovich said.

The authority and local business and political leaders have appealed to Gov. Tom Corbett to find a solution to chronic funding problems and avert the September cuts. Mr. Corbett has said no state help will be forthcoming until the authority reaches agreement on a new union contract but has expressed concern about ACCESS service cuts.

In a statement last week, his spokesman, Kevin Harley, said "The governor remains interested in seeing a resolution to Allegheny County's public transit problem, and is especially concerned about preserving the ACCESS program. At the same time, we cannot decide on a course of action until the Port Authority and its unions come to terms on contract terms. Pennsylvania taxpayers need to know the dimensions of the playing field."

Mr. Vulakovich said his bill has bipartisan support and he is hoping to move it quickly through the House.

"This is very important because the Port Authority has many issues. We'd like to take this issue off the table and not put these people through the anxiety," he said.

"We really hope the legislators and senators see the good in it," Mr. Parker said.

Transportation - neigh_north

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published May 14, 2012 12:00 AM


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