In an effort to control costs within the Delaware Department of Transportation, Secretary Shailen Bhatt has recently said he plans to look into overhauling the state's public transit system.
"An issue that I saw was the spiraling cost of transit and in particular, paratransit," Bhatt said in an interview on Friday. "We are the only state that delivers paratransit this way. We need to do it more efficiently and reduce cost before it spirals out of control."
Paratransit is transportation provided to individuals with disabilities.
As it stands, Delaware Transit Corporation, the subsidiary of DelDOT that provides public transit, conducts 12.8 million fixed route trips annually and almost one million of those are paratransit.
Under laws set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, anywhere that DTC has a fixed route, the corporation is required to provide paratransit service three quarters of a mile on either side of that route.
DTC actually goes beyond what is required under ADA law. A total of 37 percent of all paratransit trips provided are outside of a designated coverage area, said Lauren Skiver, CEO of DTC.
Such expanded service has become a problem, she said.
"We deliver everything as if it's ADA," Skiver said. "Delivering ADA everywhere, where it's not required, is part of the issue for Delaware and the cost driver. We really have to look at alternatives in those areas."
DTC has worked to create a redesign of the transit system that will essentially be a complete overhaul, according to Skiver.
"We are talking about transit redesign that hits all of our services, our fixed route service and our paratransit service," she said.
DTC is looking at potentially trying to expand fixed route service into some of the areas where paratransit is the only option in order to take some of the strain off paratransit. The department is also looking at alternative ways to provide paratransit users with transportation, while cutting down on costs. One suggestion that has been made is the use of taxis.
"Taxis give Delaware the opportunity to create business opportunities for business owners," Skiver said. "It gives our riders a more flexible way to get around and it gives the state the benefit of a lower cost alternative."
Another alternative transit source that is being suggested is a partnership with non-profit organizations who are already providing rides to paratransit users. One key point that Bhatt emphasized is that no one will be left stranded by the redesign.
"Nobody is going to be left without a ride," he said. "Everybody is still getting picked up. We will still deliver paratransit per federal law, but other services may look a little different."
Page 2 of 2 - DTC is also looking at ways to redesign bus routes. One of the initiatives that DTC is hoping to implement with its new design is flexibility, Skiver said. One solution, she said, is that rather than having a 40-foot bus traveling down the road in a more rural area, the mode of transit could be smaller, that flexes on and off and circulates areas with a density of job sites and businesses.
DTC is also looking at raising transit fares.
Transit officials noted that fares have not been increased in New Castle County since 1989 and those in Sussex and Kent counties have not been raised since 2001. Bus fare is currently $1.15 in New Castle County and $1 in Kent and Sussex. Paratransit fares are $2. The fare would not affect route times, Skiver said.
"There isn't anything that you buy anymore from those periods of time that you're still paying the same amount, or even close for," she said. "Virtually everything you would have bought from 1989 to 2001 to now would have changed in price."
Fares may be going up, but transit may also be running more frequently, according to Skiver. DTC is hoping to shorten wait times for bus service.
DTC intends to address these issues and give the public a chance to weigh in at three public hearings regarding transit redesign said.
"Transit is about frequency and it's about area of cover and those are things that could be improved based on talking to the public," she said.