Area seniors distressed by changes to dial-a-ride service

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Seniors who rely on public transportation for medical appointments and shopping trips are concerned over recent Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority changes.

The alterations, which seniors say make it harder to schedule rides, were made to meet the federal requirements of the American’s with Disabilities Act, according to the PVTA.

Amherst Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano said the adjustments to the “Dial-a-Ride” program, put into place on Aug. 1, are beginning to cause problems for senior citizens in town who live on their own.

“It’s been a well-used and much needed service through all these years, and people have set up their lives based on transportation options available,” Pagano said.

Amherst doesn’t currently offer its own ride service.

But with federal mandates requiring prioritization of disabled individuals, and to cut some of the costs of transporting individuals age 60 and over, PVTA has separated the fleet of vans, which is operated by Hulmes Transportation of Belchertown

“It has become an uncertain future going forward how much they can do for able-bodied people,” Pagano said.

For PVTA Administrator Mary MacInnes, segmenting senior riders and paratransit riders was a necessary change to reduce costs and to make sure the agency was meeting “on-time” requirements for ADA riders.

“They are two different services and they shouldn’t have been connected anyway,” MacInnes said.

PVTA has set aside 20 vans that are dedicated for rides for senior citizens, which run daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

MacInnes said she has spoken to senior center directors and alerted them about the changes, which include no longer having standing ride orders and the likelihood of senior citizens negotiating the time of their ride.

Other than the first week of the changes, when there was a misunderstanding by an employee scheduling rides, this negotiation takes place when a senior citizen makes a call.

“It is different,” MacInnes said, observing that even if a doctor’s appointment has a specific time, a ride may not be guaranteed. “It’s possible for the calltaker to say it doesn’t work at that time.”

MacInnes said the average ride for a senior citizen costs $50 per round trip, with fares charged to seniors only covering 8 percent of the costs to PVTA.

Amherst Select Board member Douglas Slaughter, who serves on the PVTA advisory board, said the goal of the vote to separate senior vans from paratransit vans was to keep the service as whole as possible.

Since the changes were implemented, dial-a-ride trips for seniors have declined 22 percent, from 6,409 in July to 4,977 in September, a level that MacInnes said PVTA can sustain. She cautions, though, that some seniors became ADA eligible when the changes were made.

As part of the changes, Northampton is one of four communities participating in a pilot program, that will allow the city to begin offering van service from the Senior Center on Conz Street, likely beginning in mid November, said Senior Services Director Linda Desmond.

Desmond added that this will give more ride options to seniors in Northampton.

Northampton signed a contract with PVTA in which it is being provided a van, as well as maintenance service for a year. The program is subsidized by PVTA, meaning riders will pay $2 for round trip, with PVTA reimbursing $10 per person. The city is covering the cost of hiring drivers and fuel.

Successful fundraising in excess of $65,000, as well as money from the city, will provide a second van beginning in February, Desmond said.

Seniors in Easthampton have had city-provided transportation for more than 25 years, said Linda Talbot, director of the Council on Aging and Enrichment Center.

Talbot said this service recently expanded to medical appointments in Northasmpton, Leeds, Flroence and Hatfield, and that people are taking advantage of it, with the most recent numbers showing three times as many seniors are using the city service compared to PVTA.

“We’re busier than ever,” Talbot said.

Easthampton has a full-time transportation coordinator and two drivers, uses city maintenance and city fuel. Those going on round trips in Easthampton are charged $3, less than the $4 if they use PVTA, Talbot said that allows them to go places, such as Chicopee and Holyoke, not offered by the city service.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.