A national research institute in Tampa, Florida spent more than $100,000 to study the human impacts of paratransit eligibility testing without interviewing any customers.
Two senior researchers for the National Center for Transit Research examined industry data and spoke with 39 transit agencies through written surveys, ten phone interviews and one in-person conversation for the study, "Impacts of More Rigorous ADA Paratransit Eligibility Assessments on Riders with Disabilities." The researchers, Jay Goodwill and Deborah Sapper, did not interview paratransit applicants or customers or include transit riders groups in the data analysis that spanned 18 months with funds from the Florida Department of Transportation.
One of the study's objectives was to "measure the impacts of the more restrictive procedures on those disabled persons who have been denied services." But the researchers did not speak with anyone who lost service.
Goodwill, a former transit agency manager, said paratransit customers were not consulted for budgetary reasons and to protect their confidentiality, since medical information and identities are revealed in the application process."That was a conscious decision at the beginning," Goodwill said. "We couldn’t just do a random survey because that’s not reliable or statistically valid. Would we only get the ones who have axes to grind? Or quite often you only get people who have good things to say."
The study examines a national trend in which applicants for the federally mandated transportation service for people with disabilities are required to prove their need in person in a growing number of cities where mail-in applications were accepted before. Critics say the tests are cumbersome for people with severe or permanent conditions. Supporters say they encourage disabled riders to switch to mass transit. Read the background story. Sapper and Goodwill said the testing requirements are financially motivated.
"Basically everyone’s trying to cut costs and they’re trying to help people who aren’t eligible,” to make sure disqualified riders have other transit options, said Sapper. “They pretty much have other options," she added. Goodwill said eligibility testing often emerges at transit agencies that once offered service beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and are now scaling back their non-mandated trips as ridership and budget pressures have increased. “Usually the budgets have been driving changes to the eligibility process,” he said.
Goodwill concluded that transit agencies are "compassionate" and "responsible" in their approach to eligibility tests including face-to-face interviews and functional exams. "I think as an industry people seem to be taking a very sound approach in dealing with a service that financially is becoming more and more of a burden for the transit system," said Goodwill, who conducted the study with Sapper at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. In 2007, the nation's transit agencies provided 91 million demand responsive trips, a record keeping category that primarily consists of paratransit trips, according to the National Transit Database of the Federal Transit Administration. That represents a 127 percent increase in trips since 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.
Goodwill also identified a variety of eligibility standards at the agencies, saying, "Some were very strict and some pretty much certified whoever asked to be certified." Transit agencies are permitted to offer service to people who do not meet the federal requirements as long as they can meet demand for the required trips first.
Disability rights advocates have voiced concerns that the rigorous process sometimes causes eligible riders to lose service when they miss their assessments due to medical conditions or conflicts, push themselves too hard during functional assessments such as climbing stairs or have disabilities that are not apparent to an observer.
Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in California, said eligibility testing can be a tool
for communicating with paratransit customers about their mass transit
options and improving paratransit quality. However, testing systems
that do not follow recommended best practices, including the use of
thorough and accurate evaluations and complete sets of individual conditions for those who receive trip-by-trip rather than full eligibility, can also harm
customers, Golden said.
“We saw a lot of cities go to a strict model with bad results,” said Golden. “There are so many impacts. For example, people who should receive at least some eligibility don’t receive any. Or they receive limited eligibility when they should have unlimited eligibility. We also see that some people are discouraged, that the system to determine peoples’ eligibility is so lengthy and cumbersome and full of problems that they’re just discouraged from using the system at all. Some systems have rejected an applicant simply due to errors or inconsistencies on the application. Others have denied transportation to an applicant's in-person evaluation. Others have taken months to make a decision, despite the timelines requirements in the ADA. Even though there are good handbooks and regular training programs to educate transit agencies on best practices in ADA paratransit eligibility.”
Goodwill disagreed with the concern that eligibility testing can lead to denials of eligible applicants. “I guess the conclusion we’re coming up with was we didn’t really find that that concern was valid. By no means we’ve talked with every transit agency," he said.
Sapper and Goodwill spoke by phone to paratransit services for ten transit agencies, including Utah Transit Authority's Paratransit Service ADA Program in Salt Lake City, Metro Mobility in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, the LIFT in San Diego, California, GO!Bus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Trans-AID in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Special Transportation Service in Charlotte, North Carolina.
In Florida, the researchers spoke to Paratransit (TOPS) in Broward County, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority's paratransit program, the Regional Transit System's paratransit service in Gainesville and the SCAT Plus program of Sarasota County Area Transit, where Goodwill is the former general manager. They made one in-person visit to the Sarasota provider.
The researchers' surveys to transit agencies included questions about whether eligibility changes altered the number of applications received, whether they provide rides to applicants who are rendered ineligible, and whether they do in-person cognitive assessments. There are 550 urban paratransit providers in the nation, and 1,100 systems in rural areas, according to the National Transit Database.
Goodwill, who worked as general manager for Sarasota County Area Transit for almost 20 years before joining the university's research team in 2002, was familiar with paratransit eligibility testing through another recent study, called "Creative Ways to Manage Paratransit Costs," which recommended eligibility changes to reduce costs. "This one wasn’t a direct follow-up but it was related," he said about the studies. The agency Goodwill headed did not conduct in-person tests during his tenure, which briefly included paratransit oversight. Asked whether his work on the prior study had any influence on his positive findings in the current one, Goodwill said, "Personally I don’t feel I’m conflicted. The other study looked at a lot of different techniques to manage paratransit generally."
Tara Bartee, who is listed as the project manager for both studies despite her retirement this past winter, said she had such a full plate at the Florida Department of Transportation that she barely remembers the eligibility study that bears her name. Bartee said project managers are not involved with study methodology and merely ensure that researchers are doing enough work to earn the department's funding. Bartee's successor, Diane Quigley, said she has never heard of the study. Robert Craig of the Florida State Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged, who is listed as a second project manager, declined to comment on the study, referring all questions to Goodwill. The FDOT did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the study.
The study was funded by a $120,000 grant from the FDOT to the university's research center that was signed in May 2007, with salaries accounting for nearly $100,000. According to Goodwill and Quigley, funding for the center's research projects usually includes state and federal money, although the combined funds arrive as state funding. "The funds are mixed together, so typically on a project by project basis, it is most likely a mix of funds," Quigley said. Sandra Bell, Business Systems Coordinator for the FDOT's Research Center, said simply that this study is state funded, which Trinette Ballard of the Federal Highway Administration confirmed. Asked whether federal money was contributed earlier in the process, Ballard replied, "All I can tell you is that it is a state funded project."
The study was scheduled for completion in February 2009 and then extended to June. The FDOT plans to release the results in three to four weeks following final approvals, according to Bell. Goodwill said the total cost will be closer to $112,000. The grant included $6,150 for four visits to out-of-state transit agencies and eight visits in Florida, to "provide a perspective of leading U.S. transit agencies’ policies and procedures related to ADA complementary paratransit eligibility." However, the researchers decided only one visit was necessary.
The study is listed as part of an 11,900-project database of transportation projects in process or recently completed, maintained by the national Transportation Research Board. Once approved, the board expects to add the study to the 700,000-record database of transportation studies that are referenced in technical journals, reports and conferences thousands of times each year. The board declined to comment on the study.