Madison Metro Transit
AMBER ARNOLD, STATE JOURNAL

People with disabilities and those who help care for them aren’t happy with proposed changes to Metro Transit’s paratransit service that they say will make traveling more difficult and dangerous for those with physical and mental limitations.

But city officials say they have little choice but to bring Metro’s comparably generous paratransit services more in line with minimum federal standards now that the state is requiring Dane County to drop its Medicaid-funded long-term-care program in favor of the state’s Medicaid program, called Family Care.

The Madison Transit and Parking Commission could vote Wednesday on whether to end so-called leave-attended service and to eliminate paratransit “convenience” tickets — both by June 3.

The first would mean Metro would no longer have to ensure riders have someone waiting to escort them into their destinations when they are dropped off. The second would mean that some riders would have to carry cash to pay for rides — which some advocates fear could put disabled riders at risk of being robbed.

Plans to increase paratransit cash fares from $3.25 to $4 and to move from door-to-door service to curb-to-curb service will be considered next year.

All the changes are aimed at coping with the loss of about $3.9 million per year in federal dollars after Gov. Scott Walker signed a law requiring Dane County to join the state’s Family Care program. That money will now go to Family Care-contracted agencies. They’ll be able use some of it for transit services from Metro or other providers, but some riders fear the overall level of transit services for the disabled will suffer as a result.

“Any company or city that would even consider cutting such a critical support to people with disabilities should examine why they are refusing to represent the 15 to 20 percent of their constituents who have disabilities,” said Laurine Lusk, the mother of a woman who uses the paratransit services, in an email to members of the commission on Tuesday.

Mayor Paul Soglin and Metro general manager Chuck Kamp acknowledged the city would not be prohibited from continuing Metro paratransit as it exists now, but doesn’t have the money to do so.

Kamp said Metro has many other worthy priorities, including implementation of a bus rapid transit system and construction of a bus station.

“The cuts to other services would be unacceptable,” Soglin said.

Testimony from an October public hearing on the paratransit changes and other feedback to Metro show riders and their advocates were most concerned about moving to curb-to-curb service and eliminating convenience tickets.

Kamp said that if leave-attended service is eliminated, agencies contracted under the Family Care program will need to take responsibility for making sure that someone is there to meet riders at their destinations, but that drivers will have the “discretion” to remain with riders they feel can’t safely be left alone.

“We would be very tuned in to this issue,” Metro spokesman Mick Rusch said. “All drivers will be given discretion and direction to focus on the safety of passengers first.”

Kamp also said Metro has already sold about $100,000 worth of ride vouchers, called agency tickets, to Family Care agencies so their clients won’t have to carry cash.

“We want them to use the agency for tickets for convenience,” he said.

He also pushed back on suggestions that Metro was moving toward the eventual elimination of its paratransit service. Metro provided about 300,000 paratransit rides in 2016, he said, about 200,000 of which were funded with the federal dollars that are going away and about 80 percent of which were provided by contractors such as Badger Bus and Abby Vans.

In the future, it expects to provide 100,000 to 200,000 paratransit rides a year, but all of them through Metro contractors, Kamp said.

Advocates for shifting Dane County’s disabled to the Family Care program say it will help eliminate the county’s waiting list for long-term care services, which now stands at about 500.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.