Greater Sudbury hopes stricter eligibility rules will not only reduce the soaring costs of its Handi Transit system, it will improve service for those who really need it.
If a new policy approved this week by the operations committee is confirmed by city council, anyone who wants to take advantage of Handi Transit will have to fill out a new, more detailed application form. They'll also have to be evaluated in person by a city staffer or a contractor, who will determine whether they qualify.
Roger Sauve, manager of Sudbury Transit operations, said the previous policy was outdated, since the city buses are now all fully wheelchair accessible.
“One of the parts of the (current) criteria is, can you manage three steps? Well, we no longer have steps on buses,” Sauve said.
He said many Handi Transit users may not realize the conventional busing system is far more convenient, since you don't have to book a time to be picked up.
And Linda Whiteside, a disabled person who is on the city's accessibility advisory panel, said the public may not be aware of how much of their lives is in the control of other people.
“A disabled person usually runs on schedules,” Whiteside said. “So I totally prefer the traditional transit because it's freedom. I can come and go when I want to come and go. I don't have to book an appointment. I'm not told this is what time you have to be ready. You're not told this is the time you have to leave.”
She's seen the Handi Transit system grow from five drivers when the city took it over years ago to what it is today.
“Now there's 25 drivers,” she said. “It's gone huge.”
According to a 2011 audit by Auditor General Brian Bigger, Handi Transit use increased by 26 per cent between 2005 and 2009. The net cost to the city increased by more than $1 million in that time, rising to more than $2.7 million. At that rate, the system would cost taxpayers $4.8 million a year by 2015.
He recommended the city take advantage of their fully accessible fleet and encourage Handi Transit users take conventional buses. Bigger also called for tougher eligibility rules to be considered to try and stem rising costs.
Sauve said they spent a year consulting with users, looking at what other cities do, and even conducted a poll to get a better picture of what users think. Riders were happy with the system, although the booking process was subject to complaints.
“And while the numbers were good, they also told another story,” Sauve said. “We didn't have the proper assessment tools in place to ensure that we were providing transportation to all the customers who need it.”
Ward 2 Coun. Jacques Barbeau said misuse of the system has become a real problem that had to be faced. Some in the community won't be happy with the new rules because they may lose their spot.
“There's some significant abuse out there,” he said. “There are some people who are taking it because it's a very convenient way for people to get from point A to point B ... Not for a second do I think we're going to make everybody happy with this report. I fully expect we're going to ruffle some feathers with this report. And people who have been abusing the system, their feathers will be ruffled.”
One concern raised was some people who reasonably could take conventional buses in warm months won't be able to get to the bus stop in winter because of snow.
“We'd have to be able to get there,” Whiteside said. “(All the bus stops are) not going to be plowed properly.”
Tony Cecutti, the city's infrastructure GM, said rules could be relaxed when the bad weather hits.
“There are certain circumstances when the policy will have to be more flexible,” he said.
Longer term, Sauve said they could take better advantage of automated vehicle locator (AVL) systems already installed on transit buses and city snow plows. One day, users may be able to track both snow plows and buses in real time at home, so they know when a bus stop has been plowed.
“So they'll know they can get to their bus stop,” he said.
Ward 3 Coun. Claude Berthiaume asked if there will be an appeals process available to anyone denied a spot on Handi Transit. Sauve said the city's hearings committee will hear such appeals, but they're aiming to ensure the application process is fair so there won't be a flood of complaints.
“We're hoping we won't be putting an undue burden on that committee,” he said.
Once implemented, Sauve said the new rules should save the city $47,000 in 2014, and $133,000 in 2015. Those numbers could be much higher, he said, if enough users give the conventional transit system a try.
“We're anticipating as little as 10 per cent (of Handi Transit customers will shift to conventional buses), although it could be more,” he said.