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Localities wrestle with cost of STAR

Roanoke Times - 10/12/2017

Visual impairment, cerebral palsy and kidney disease barely slow 62-year-old Judy Ratcliff of Vinton, who goes out to eat, shop, worship, visit the doctor and work but does not drive. She rides in a 23-foot mini-bus operated by a door-to-door transit service for the disabled.

Ratcliff, a 30-year patron of Valley Metro STAR, often begins her day at the McDonald's close to her apartment, where she recognizes people by the sound of their voices. She eats lunch there as well on some days, and she patronizes the nearby KFC, shops at the adjacent Kroger, worships in Roanoke, works in Salem and visits several doctors.

She often rides four times a day and has ridden as many as nine times in one day during the past year.

No questions asked - until recently.

As the beneficiary of a federal and local government partnership, Ratcliff pays no more than $3 per trip. For taxpayers, the meter is ticking. Most of her costs fall to the town of Vinton, which spent $17,460 on Ratcliff's transport during a recent 14-month period, town records show.

Without naming names, Vinton officials earlier this year mentioned that the costs were becoming an issue in a presentation to the board of directors of Greater Roanoke Transit Co., a public service organization owned by the city of Roanoke.

The company, also known as Valley Metro, contracts for the operation of STAR in Vinton, Salem and Roanoke. A proposal that could trim costs emerged, but STAR will remain costly.

Transportation for people who are physically or mentally unable to ride the bus is the costliest form of public transportation. Also known as paratransit, it must be at least as functional, convenient and affordable as the bus, but comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Unlike conventional travel with a correlation between distance and cost, STAR bills Vinton the same amount whether it takes Ratcliff to the McDonald's a third of a mile from her apartment or to her job as a thrift store greeter in Salem. It's $19 each way, $3 paid by the rider and the rest covered by government funds.

How often she rides is up to her, as is where she goes. Her mobility is a delight to her and has been recognized by the paratransit operator, RADAR, which has decorated its Facebook page with her photo. Yet she said no one from the agency or local government has approached her about her heavy STAR use.

Vinton, with a $8.5 million general fund budget, spent $49,512 on STAR during the recent period. Ratcliff is its top user, records show.

"I just thought, 'We've got the pass, go use it,'" Ratcliff said. "I don't want to stay home and sit in that apartment."

No one is saying Ratcliff has done anything wrong. Rather, the sheer volume of her use and that of a few other individuals is forcing system officials to rethink certain program details. Valley Metro details each STAR rider's use in a spreadsheet sent with the monthly bill to each participating local government. About 1,200 people are registered to ride STAR and use it for about 74,000 trips a year.

The white STAR mini-buses operate the same hours as the blue and green Valley Metro buses but not along fixed routes. Residents of Roanoke, Salem and Vinton who qualify medically can ride STAR to any destination in those communities as long as they request their rides 24 hours before travel.

Most of Roanoke County, which doesn't have to fund STAR because it doesn't fund the bus system, is off-limits to STAR riders. The buses are wheelchair-accessible and hold a dozen or more people, but they're seldom full.

Several users agreed that without STAR - which stands for Specialized Transit-Arranged Rides - they'd risk becoming isolated and idle. A third of STAR riders are employed, a 2016 survey found.

"It's a great service. I'm glad that they can come directly to your house," said Kyle Shively of Salem, who rides STAR to and from his job in patron services at the visitor center at the Salem Civic Center. He has cerebral palsy and can't walk.

Another rider, Darline Pfannmoeller of Roanoke County, referred to STAR personnel - drivers, dispatchers and other staff - as "my family." She does not drive or live on a bus line but goes out three to four times a week using STAR.

"I'm not a stay-at-home person," said Pfannmoeller, who is 88.

Riders pay a one-way fare of $3 to any destination in the service area. Under the federal mandate, the fare can be no more than twice the price of a bus ticket, which is $1.50 in the Roanoke Valley. The rider's hometown picks up the rest, an amount that can be partially offset by state and federal grants.

Salem spent $116,163 and Roanoke paid about $416,000 for STAR on a fiscal year basis for 2016-17.

But STAR's $96 monthly pass, which allows unlimited rides, is an even better deal for users who are likely to take more than 32 trips a month.

Ratcliff is a passholder. Each time she visited McDonald's during the past year, Vinton paid $12 for the ride to the restaurant and $12 for the return home. State and federal grant dollars paid an additional $4 per direction.

It's hit or miss whether the system covers its entire $38 cost for a round-trip outing because, as in Ratcliff's case, some riders don't buy individual $3 tickets but instead buy the unlimited-ride pass.

Ratcliff rode an average of 104 times a month on the pass, which worked out to about 92 cents per trip for her, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of STAR billings.

Vinton isn't alone in seeking relief from paratransit costs. The Washington, D.C., paratransit service, MetroAccess, incurs costs of $50 per trip. The national average was $23 per trip in 2013, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based public policy organization.

The $19 per-trip cost in Vinton - the same rate charged to the cities of Salem and Roanoke - is lower than in two-thirds of systems in the country, said Carl Palmer, general manager of Valley Metro. He said RADAR provides "good quality" service to area residents who ride STAR.

Curtis Andrews, executive director of the nonprofit transportation organization, said he strives to group people going to same place at about the same time on the same bus for efficiency.

But because of a 55-minute limit on trip length set by the government, his options are limited. He might have to send several vehicles to a single hospital where several STAR users are waiting for rides to completely different destinations, he said.

Escalating expenses

A proposed change to ease STAR's cost to local governments while keeping the service unchanged for most riders will come up for public debate Oct. 26.

Under a proposal that could take effect no sooner than January, STAR seeks to end the unlimited monthly pass and instead sell a book of 52 single-ride tickets for $96. Only about 60 of the 1,200 people who are qualified to ride STAR routinely buy the unlimited pass; of them, only seven typically exceed 52 monthly trips, Palmer said.

Valley Metro also proposes to increase the price of a bus ticket from $1.50 to $1.75, which would bump a STAR single-ride pass to $3.50.

If the unlimited pass goes away and ridership decreases, Vinton will pay less for STAR. But the town won't save money if riders such as Ratcliff exhaust one 52-ride book and buy another, which would be allowed, and continue riding as often as they do now.

Vinton's STAR expense is on top of what the town pays to support the fixed-route bus service. The town's total transit expense reached $133,571 during the 14-month period from May 2016 through June 2017.

Vinton Town Manager Barry Thompson said he examined STAR as he would any category of escalating municipal expense. To afford STAR, the town limits other services, Thompson said.

For instance, he said he'd like to supply garbage cans to hold trash set out for collection but can't afford to. Those same budget pressures led to the closing of the municipal swimming pool, he said.

The decision to analyze STAR costs had nothing to do with Ratcliff personally, he said.

"The town is not out to hurt her," he said.

Ratcliff said she is sensitive to the expense of STAR and could explore walking more, such as from home to McDonald's. But Vinyard Road, where she lives, has an incomplete sidewalk and no crosswalk where she needs to cross.

That illustrates the case for municipal spending on pedestrian and bus stop amenities that encourage walking or taking the bus as a strategy to reduce paratransit transit costs, a strategy documented in a recent study by the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission.

Ratcliff said she is also open to riding the bus if she can do so safely. Valley Metro has improved the bus stop closest to Ratcliff's home, which is on a sidewalk and features a wheelchair ramp to the McDonald's parking lot. But Ratcliff would have to walk on the shoulder of Vinyard Road to get to and from the stop.

Municipalities in a like position elsewhere have undertaken steps to move disabled people at less cost. Washington metro officials this month partnered with a taxi service that believes it can beat the $50 price MetroAcess pays to shuttle the disabled. Uber and other ride-hailing services have approached transit systems about making similar arrangements, according to the Brookings Institution.

If Ratcliff rode Uber, the cost of the trip to McDonald's would be about $6 each way versus $19. If she rode Uber to her job as a thrift store greeter in Salem, the cost would be higher but still less than $19.

Palmer, the system executive, said he couldn't comment on such partnerships because he hadn't seen data on their results.

Ratcliff expressed a willingness to try Uber. "I would do anything to at least keep busy," she said.

VALLEY METRO PUBLIC HEARING

When: 7 p.m.Oct. 26

Where: Roanoke Municipal Building

What: A discussion of increasing the price of a Valley Metro bus ticket from $1.50 to $1.75, and of eliminating the unlimited monthly pass for STAR riders.

Both the bus system and STAR will run late the night of the hearing to accommodate riders who wish to attend.

 
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