There’s nothing quite like a bad idea that overtaxes an already stressed system to the point it can no longer do what it was created to do.
The Albuquerque City Council put such an idea into motion last month when it required the Transit Department to start allowing would-be Sun Van riders to self-certify as to their disability this summer.
The Sun Van service was established as an alternative point-to-point transportation system for mentally or physically disabled folks who can’t use the regular city bus system.
It is important to note that, even with the current three-step certification process (application, medical diagnosis from a licensed health care provider, in-person interview that can include a “functional analysis”), the Sun Van program is far from running in fifth gear. A full third of its 84 driver slots are vacant and there are frequent complaints of late or non-arriving service to its overwhelmed call center.
Do you think that will get better by allowing riders to sign up using the honor system?
No other city the size Albuquerque allows self-certification for paratransit riders because such a system is ripe for abuse.
And because the city cannot deny Sun Van trips to anyone “eligible,” Transit Department Deputy Director Mike Davis says the department has begun cross-training bus drivers to fill in on vans. The problem is that this robs from Peter to pay Paul: The city’s bus-driver shortage is so dire that city leaders are planning to suspend or trim dozens of bus routes.
Meanwhile, taxpayers should know Sun Van trips are eight times more expensive than a fixed-route bus service, meaning they should be used by those who have a legitimate need.
The city’s 83 Sun Vans have become a vital service for more than 4,000 city residents, people such as 76-year-old Regina Mead, who doesn’t drive due to a visual impairment and can’t walk to a traditional city bus stop because she’s also mobility impaired. She uses the Sun Van up to five days a week to get about town, saying it gives her the freedom and independence to go where she needs to.
So, rather than beef up the current system for disabled riders, the City Council decided to make it a free-for-all June 30. That rightfully concerns people such as Mead, who is also a member of the Albuquerque Paratransit Advisory Board — a volunteer citizen board the city established to advise the Transit Department on paratransit matters. Mead says the City Council did not run the idea of self-certification by the advisory board before putting it into city ordinance.
There’s also a serious federal ramification to the new scheme. Federal regulations require communities with fixed-route transit systems, such as Albuquerque, to also offer transportation service for folks with disabilities. And the travel time has to be comparable to a standard bus.
Davis worries the city won’t be able to meet its federal obligation to provide adequate service if there’s a surge in Sun Van ridership.
While Councilor Klarissa Peña says the overhaul will help “our most vulnerable citizens,” Councilor Trudy Jones has it right: She’s worried some people who have other transportation options will exploit a self-certification system to the detriment of those disabled individuals who honestly need it. As Mead says, “If anybody can do it, of course, why wouldn’t they do it? It’s door-to-door travel.”
And so, more of the city’s truly disabled residents will be left waiting for a ride.
Self-certification will only further stress already strained paratransit and transit systems. The City Council should perform a U-turn before its careless action makes matters worse for some of our most vulnerable residents.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.