By Guest Columnist JOHN KEYS, transportation consultant on mobility management
Transit systems in many areas of the country successfully build cooperative, cost-effective, partnerships to deliver service. Partnerships are used to provide quality transit service at cost savings and to maintain vehicles and facilities with workers frequently hired through community organizations served by the transit system.
In these systems, the use of partners ranging from private companies to non-profit agencies, from transit unions to volunteers and faith-based groups, enables them to deliver customer-focused, tech-based mobility management. Everyone works together to meld numerous transportation options into a system benefiting all, and frequently under leadership that embraces problem-solving rather than turf-guarding.
In just a few examples of partnering with the private sector, transit systems in Denver, Chicago, and Portland have built solid working relationships with their region’s taxi companies to fill service gaps or meet unmet needs to serve their disability customers. San Antonio’s VIA system, formerly headed by MARTA General Manager Keith Parker, is about to embark on a similar effort.
What about MARTA, where an average one-way actual paratransit trip costs taxpayers and the authority $50 (according to the KPMG audit done for the authority last year)?
For starters, MARTA is allowed to receive by federal law only $4 of this actual paratransit trip cost, so we know right off the bat that MARTA cannot maintain existing service delivery models using solely its in-house paratransit operation to serve disability riders.
What MARTA has rejected in the past, but hopefully will embrace in the future, is adopting taxi company-partnering ideas that are successful in the cities named above.
How does this work elsewhere?
Denver’s program is one of the best in the nation in terms of providing quality service at a reasonable price.
Private cab companies bid and contract with the Denver Regional Transit District (RTD) to meet a mobility need for paratransit customers. The program allows American Disability Act (ADA) certified disability passengers to access private cabs, separate from the system’s regular paratransit service (which requires a 24-hour advance reservation).
The program was implemented after the initial cost analysis showed that outsourcing the service would be more cost effective than continuing to pay overtime to in-house drivers. When overtime pay equals a large number of positions, it’s time to bid these dollars out to others (or let the in-house union bid on continuation of the status quo while knowing that this option is being considered by management).
This RTD service option allows for same-day trip mobility, which allows disability community riders to have quicker access for trips (for which they pay higher rates), and it saves RTD a more costly paratransit trip.
Under this program, RTD’s private taxi company partners charge less per trip for this service, which is subsidized through federal funds. Vehicles are generally owned, inspected, maintained and dispatched by the taxi company, and they are leased to independent contractors (drivers). The local taxi industry is assured a volume of business, which helps it prosper while serving RTD customers.
Denver has had this program since 1997 and continues to refine it every day. The three cab companies participating in the program periodically bid on continuing as program partners and must meet performance and customer service standards monthly – which keeps everyone sharp, including the RTD’s in-house paratransit operation.
A side benefit to this partnership in Denver is that the region has a high number of wheelchair-accessible taxis in service in their region (at least 50 funded through just one of several federal programs available to accomplish this goal). The Atlanta region, by contrast, has a total of four wheelchair-accessible, privately-owned taxis in operation today.
But the notion of partnering doesn’t end with just using the region’s private taxi fleet to help open more transportation options to Atlanta’s citizens and visitors.
Entities such as Goodwill Industries, Jewish Family and & Career Services, Easter Seals, United Way organizations, and many others are frequently encouraged by the transit systems named above to bid on services such as cleaning vehicles, rail cars and buildings, and to staff “call centers” to serve the system’s customers.
Thus, members of the community who are frequently the most transit-dependent can benefit from job opportunities through the concept of partnering – if they win the bid on these job opportunities.
In Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed has established a Taxicab Ordinance Task Force, which has been hard at work for well over a year. One of its goals is to put tools into place to get more accessible taxis in service in the private taxi fleet in the city. National studies consistently show that the best way to achieve this goal in any region is to have the local transit agency partner with the private sector taxi industry.
As chair of the Accessible Taxi Subcommittee of the Task Force, I can tell you without hesitation that four wheelchair accessible taxis in a metro area of five million people is not enough. We can do better, and we can do better by strengthening our private sector taxi fleet by partnering with metro transit systems – including MARTA, which already is at the table – to build win-win scenarios so all sides can benefit.
The General Assembly is considering legislation, House Bill 264, that initially intended to require MARTA to privatize some of its operations. Privatization is one approach, but these examples show that a combination of approaches and partners, including the private sector, is already a success in the nation’s top-notch transit systems.
If state law is deemed to be needed to move transit in this direction, the General Assembly should require partnerships among the numerous transportation providers which are delivering transportation options in our area, not solely privatization.
Note to readers: John Keys has worked in the area of public revenue policy and transit advocacy for more than 30 years. Before consulting on mobility management in Georgia, he worked for MARTA and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority in legislative policy positions and served in leadership roles in several transit associations.