Five visually-impaired women described their difficulties using the paratransit and ride choice program, with one asking the Mesa City Council to postpone confusing and expensive changes in how the Valley Metro system works.
But the council, facing about $2 million in extra costs if it failed to act, voted unanimously last week to move forward with a transition period as new rules for the program are scheduled to take effect July 1 – giving several hundred elderly or disabled Mesa residents a significant challenge to getting around.
At the same time, Mayor John Giles directed city staff to work individually with the system’s elderly, disabled and sight impaired customers to find the best solution for their transportation needs.
“I think we need to move forward with the transition. It’s going to require a lot of hand-holding,’’ Giles said. “The status quo has changed. Previously, we could err on the side of being generous. We can’t do that anymore. We’re talking about millions coming out of the general fund.’’
Vice Mayor Mark Freeman asked city staff members to focus on the needs of the visually impaired after listening for two hours about the present system’s shortcomings at a council study session.
The sight impaired riders said they were unable to understand the changes listed on the Valley Metro website.
One woman described how she was left waiting at a Tempe coffee shop for 2 ½ hours as she attempted to transfer from one part of the system to another.
“This is so new to a lot of these people. We need to hold these people’s hands and walk them through the process,’’ Councilman Kevin Thompson said.
Thompson said his mother suffers from dementia and has had problems using Lyft, an option in the RideChoice program.
He said Lyft will not wait very long for disabled and sight impaired customers, will not look for them and does not offer the door-to-door service that some people need.
“We can’t have vulnerable people left stranded in our city,’’ Thompson said.
Riders face two significant changes on July 1. The RideChoice program, which previously was open to seniors, will be restricted to only those who qualify under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
In addition, the service area for the para transit program, which currently stretches throughout the city, will be reduced in size to only what is required by federal regulations.
Jodi Sorrell, Mesa’s transit services director, said there are important differences in the two programs.
Para transit is a ride share program with multiple passengers on a van equipped to help riders with disabilities. Reservations are required 24 hours in advance and the fare is generally lower while the city subsidy is much higher.
The RideChoice program has fewer restrictions and does not require an advance reservation, but the women who spoke to the council said it would increase the cost to some riders, especially those traveling long distances.
Sorrell told the council that about 350 to 400 riders in Mesa who have been using Ride Choice will no longer be eligible in July. She said smaller service area for paratransit program will affect about 580 users.
“We are encouraging everybody to get ADA certified,’’ she said. She said many people think they don’t qualify because they are not disabled, but it is also possible to qualify because of medical conditions.
The intent of RideChoice is to provide service to Mesa residents who do not have ready access to more conventional forms of transportation such as public transit or a personal vehicle, Sorrell said.
“People with disabilities and most seniors have some level of health condition or disability that will qualify them under ADA rules,’’ she said.
Riders who want to qualify for ADA certification are transported to a Valley Metro testing center in Phoenix, Sorrell said, with anywhere from 100-200 Mesa residents obtaining the certification each month.
Sorrell said the subsidy paid by the city is vastly different between the two programs, with para transit costing $46 per ride and RideChoice costing $18 per ride.
Because of cost increases in the para transit program, the current service area “is not sustainable for us,’’ Sorrell said. “That’s why we’re kind of pushing the other program.’’
The women who addressed council described their difficulties getting to work, medical appointments or other places.
“Put away your car keys and see how far you can get around the city,’’ Danielle Jones, a visually-impaired woman in a wheelchair, said. “I’ve gotten lost. I’ve had to call people and say, ‘I need help.’’’
Marcia Schmit described how she had lost her peripheral vision and can no longer drive. She said it took her two years to get to the point that she can work. Her problem, though, is getting back and forth between her home in downtown Mesa and her job near State Route 143 in Phoenix.
“Ride Choice has left me sitting for 1-3 hours,’’ she said, recalling one occasion where she was stranded at a Starbucks in Tempe for 2 ½ hours. She said she finally resorted to calling Uber to get home.
“If you take away the transit, you can’t get to your job, you can’t support yourself,’’ Schmit said, noting that 80 percent of vision-impaired people are unemployed.’’
Mesa resident RG Shepard is one of those able-body seniors that’s being kicked off the RideChoice program.
“It’s good for seniors to get around and it irks me because I can’t use it anymore,” said the 73-year-old who’s used the program for about four years.
Shepard has a car, but he doesn’t drive too far from home.
“I want to go downtown and see a Suns game, and I won’t drive down there at night and come back,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”
He used to take the program’s discounted taxi to the Sycamore Station, where he would catch the light rail to downtown Phoenix for a basketball game.
Although seniors can catch a bus to the light rail, Shepard said not every senior lives within walking distance of a bus stop.
“They kicked us off RideChoice,” he said. “The whole idea is how to get to the bus and how to get to the light rail from your house. Mesa is saying seniors are not as important and they don’t care about seniors.”