Decision soon on fare hikes for disabled riders

Published: 9/24/2009 12:02 AM

Pace hearings into paratransit fare increases and cost cutting wrap up this week with officials expected to vote in October on setting a uniform $3 rate.

The audience was sparse at a hearing in Arlington Heights Wednesday although Pace staff said a similar session in Chicago Monday drew more than 60 people.

Pace provides the ride program for people with disabilities in the suburbs and took over service to Chicago three years ago. Since 2006, ridership has increased but so have costs, while revenues from sales taxes are flat. This year paratransit ran into a $20 million shortfall.

"The economic downtown has severely reduced the amount of sales tax generated in the six-county area," Pace board Director Vernon Squires of Wilmette said. "It created a funding crisis."

A solution brokered by the Regional Transportation Authority, which has financial authority over transit agencies, involved raising fees, using $9 million of Pace's capital funding, making cuts, and transferring about $4 million in RTA revenues intended for short-term, innovative projects to paratransit. Other sources include a possible loan from the RTA.

Currently, fares are $2.50 in Lake, Kane, McHenry and Will counties and $2.25 in Chicago. Suburban Cook and DuPage riders pay $3 already. The change would generate about $1.5 million in revenue.

The cost reductions recommended by the RTA involve reducing hours at call centers where people can reserve rides. Hours now vary depending on what service areas customers live in and what day it is. Setting a uniform call time of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week could save Pace $3 million a year.

Other reforms are eliminating the ADA monthly pass offered to Chicago residents and charging for transfers between Chicago and the suburbs.

The final local hearing on the issue is 4:30-6:30 p.m. today at the Kane County Government Center, 719 Batavia Ave., Geneva.

"I realize all proposals are painful, but we have very little choice," Squires said.

Paratransit is a federally mandated service, which means Pace and the RTA need to continue providing transport or face consequences from the federal government.