Weeks after alarming hundreds of seniors in western Massachusetts by discussing possible cuts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority is now looking to expand its dial-a-ride service for seniors.
The PVTA Advisory Board has approved a pilot program to add Saturday service for seniors and to make operational changes that will put seniors and people with disabilities on separate vans to improve the on-time performance for the paratransit trips.
Over the last several years, the number of seniors using the PVTA’s door-to-door ride service increased sharply. The additional trips caused the on-time performance for the paratransit service to fall below a contractually required 95 percent.
Now, the senior dial-a-ride service and the federally-mandated rides for people with disabilities will use two separate van fleets, according to PVTA Administrator Mary McInnes.
"And we think that will have a positive impact on the ADA ( Americans with Disabilities Act) on-time performance, which was the whole purpose of many discussions over the past several weeks," she said.
Some of the options considered by the PVTA’s paratransit committee were to reduce the hours of operation for the senior service or to cap it at a certain number of trips per day.
" The board decided not to go in that direction," said McInnes.
Additionally, the PVTA will try providing, on a pilot basis, dial-a-ride service for seniors on Saturday.
Cost was not an issue in the discussions about possible cuts in the dial-a-ride service, according to McInnes. But the PVTA is also planning to pursue a pilot program to provide used vehicles and financial assistance to four local councils on aging to operate senior bus services.
" It is very expensive to provide this kind of on-demand service, so we want to experiment with the councils on aging to see if there is a more cost effective way to do it and sustain the service," said McInnes.
The senior service costs the PVTA $50 per round trip, but fare covers just seven percent of that, she said.
When word spread the PVTA was considering cutbacks to the dial-a-ride service, seniors packed an advisory board meeting in late February to protest. Patti Williams, an organizer for the Massachusetts Senior Action Council said she’s pleased with the PVTA’s response.
" We went from being very concerned about possible cuts to being pretty pleased about maintaining what we have plus adding the Saturdays and the local transportation," she said.
Williams said an estimated 500 seniors per week use the dial-a-ride service. The majority of trips are for medical appointments and shopping.
Williams said Saturday dial-a-ride service is something seniors have long lobbied for.