By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert staff is studying whether to scale back Paratransit for those with disabilities or continue the program townwide but at a financial loss.

Factors such as a growing aging population and rising costs mean the town will face between an estimated $550,000 and $700,000 deficit annually if nothing is done, according to a five-year budget forecast.

Gilbert anticipated reaching out to the public this fall with Town Council hearings scheduled sometime in early 2020.

If the program is scaled back, it was expected to affect 297 riders, according to the town.

“We are talking about the highest-need population in our community,” Mayor Jenn Daniels told council at its financial retreat last month. “There’s not a lot of options for them to go to their medical appointments or to the school of the blind in Phoenix. I agree we need to make changes, but keep in mind the population we are talking about here.”

The federally mandated Paratransit program currently offers door-to-door service for individuals who are certified with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and can’t use a conventional bus.

Under one of the proposals, the town would reduce the service from townwide to what federal law requires, which is within three-fourths of a mile of all fixed-route bus stops.

Town staff proposed for ADA-certified riders to instead take RideChoice, a discounted service with access to Lyft, taxis and wheel-chair accessible vehicles.

The non-mandated RiderChoice is cheaper for the town to operate but costs residents more to ride. Gilbert currently pays $49 for each trip under Paratransit and $18 per trip with RideChoice. The town contracts with Valley Metro for both services.

Riders who take Paratransit pay a flat $4 per one-way trip. Under RideChoice, the fare is $3 per trip up to eight miles with $2 per mile afterward.

Paratransit ridership was projected to grow between fiscal years 2019 and 2020 with steady increases in subsequent years, according to Kyle Mieras, Development Services director.

Additionally, neighboring Chandler and Mesa both expanded fixed-bus routes and Mesa’s recent decision to scale back its Paratransit service will put an increased demand for the service in Gilbert, Mieras said.

From July to January, 865 ADA-certified riders used Paratransit, totaling 26,936 trips, according to Nichole McCarty, transportation planner. The average trip length was 9.4 miles and the longest trip, 59 miles, she added.

RideChoice counted 454 riders with a total of 1,925 trips from July to January with an average trip length of 5 miles, McCarty reported.

So, under the Paratransit program, it would cost riders $4 for a 10-mile ride and $7 under for the same trip in RideChoice.

According to staff, 66 percent of the 865 riders live in federally mandated areas for Paratransit service with 34 percent or 297 riders living outside the service area.

If the town decided to keep the status quo, it would need to dip into the general fund for the program’s deficit, according to staff.

McCarty said staff is closely following Mesa’s process, and noted a comfort level riders have for Paratransit and that its drivers tend to wait longer for a rider compared with a Lyft driver.

She added RideChoice offers a limited number of vehicles that are accessible to ADA riders but is looking to grow that fleet.

Daniels said this topic came up in 2010 and Paratransit riders then made it clear they relied on the service.

She said if the change goes through, some of the 297 affected riders don’t have the option of moving closer to a fixed-route or can’t get into a RideChoice vehicle.

She wanted to make adjustments in order to keep service for all and asked for bus ridership numbers, saying everything was on the table, including current bus routes.

“I’m not sure if fix routes is the right process for us to be going in the Town of Gilbert in the long run,” she said.

Vice Mayor Eddie Cook agreed, saying public transportation was going to change with things such as autonomous vehicles and micro-mobility vehicles.

“I think we need to be forward-thinking in this area,” Cook said.

Councilman Jared Taylor favored reducing Paratransit, saying this was an opportunity for the private sector to step in and bridge the gap.

Councilwoman Aimee Yentes agreed, saying she saw growth taking place with Lyft and Uber amping up their services while lowering their cost.

The earliest Gilbert could make a change would be summer 2020.