By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert senior citizens who want to continue using Valley Metro’s low-cost taxi service will have until June to prove they have a disability that prevents them from using a bus.

Previously, seniors 65 and older and people with a disability could participate in the RideChoice program. For Gilbert, RideChoice can meet the needs of disabled people that Paratransit now provides, but at a lower cost, according to town officials.

“The current figures we have received from Valley Metro show that the current average trip cost to the Town is approximately $49 for Paratransit service and $18 for RideChoice,” Gilbert transportation planner Nichole McCarty said.

“The RideChoice service is not a federally mandated program, but it is an additional service that Valley Metro partner cities can elect to participate in,” she added.

McCarty said Gilbert officials recognize the town’s population is growing and aging and that the council is scheduled to discuss how to make all of the town’s transit program services sustainable at a Feb. 28 retreat.

Gilbert joined Mesa as the only two Valley municipalities to boot able-body seniors from RideChoice; Chandler, Fountain Hills, Surprise and Tempe opted to let them remain.

RideChoice is available 24/7 and costs riders $3 for each trip up to eight miles, with any additional miles costing $2 per mile. Providers include Lyft, several local taxicab companies and other companies that provide wheelchair-accessible service.

The decision on who can ride is left to the seven participating Valley communities, which establish the level of subsidy they will provide for their residents.

Mesa’s decision came about after the city saw that RideChoice could meet the demands of a growing number of people with disabilities.

It cost Mesa an estimated $46 per paratransit trip compared with $14.89 per RideChoice trip, according to a Mesa city staff report.

So, Mesa opted to scale back paratransit from citywide to what is required by federal law, providing service within three-fourths of a mile of bus routes and light-rail stations.

Mesa City Council last week opted to move forward on changes to Paratransit.

“There are 400 active RideChoice users in Mesa and 181 active RideChoice users in Gilbert who are not yet ADA certified,” said Susan Tierney, Valley Metro spokeswoman. “They would need to get ADA certified in order to use the service after June 30.”

Maricopa County recently implemented the RideChoice program, and ADA certification has been a requirement from the outset for unincorporated communities such as Sun City and Sun City West, according to Tierney.

All RideChoice program users were first notified in July 2018 of the need to be certified with a disability recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“RideChoice is not legally required for any community,” Tierney said. “Riders that are seniors, but are not ADA-certified in Mesa, Gilbert and unincorporated Maricopa County can use our transit system – circulators, local bus and light rail.”

There is no light rail in Gilbert.

Mesa resident RG Shepard is one of those able-body seniors that’s being kicked off the RideChoice program.

“It’s good for seniors to get around and it irks me because I can’t use it anymore,” said the 73-year-old who’s used the program for about four years.

Shepard has a car, but he doesn’t drive too far from home.

“I want to go downtown and see a Suns game, and I won’t drive down there at night and come back,” he said. “It’s too dangerous.”

He used to take the program’s discounted taxi to the Sycamore Station, where he would catch the light rail to downtown Phoenix for a basketball game.

Although seniors can catch a bus to the light rail, Shepard said not every senior lives within walking distance of a bus stop.

“They kicked us off RideChoice,” he said. “The whole idea is how to get to the bus and how to get to the light rail from your house. Mesa is saying seniors are not as important and they don’t care about seniors.”