OP-ED: Put brakes on public transit plan

Judith Higgins
Lower Windsor Township

Last year, during my Pennsylvania Senate run, I spent time talking to many different people. While at senior centers, which have programs supported by the state lottery, there was high concern over funding cuts to Rabbit Transit.

There are many seniors who rely on Rabbit Transit to get to the senior centers, as well as other places, where they receive hot lunches, companionship, information and support that enhances the quality of their lives. I checked around and could find nothing … at the time.

This year, after sitting through the horror stories told by the families of the residents at the recently privatized Pleasant Acres, a county resident came to me and said, “There is a movement to privatize parts of Rabbit Transit, as well.” With that information, I started digging. What I found makes me very concerned for those community members who rely on, and need, affordable and accessible transportation.

The Department of Human Services contracts with counties to provide eligible persons, either directly or through subcontractors, transportation, with payment provided through the Medical Assistance Transportation Program (MATP). Rabbit Transit provides a coordinated service to manage and deliver these services in a 10-county area, including York.

What I discovered makes me angry and concerned. One year ago, HB 1677 was enacted requiring the use of regional brokers to provide MATP, removing public transit as the coordinator of services. Moving fast, the application for brokers was released, with responses due by March 15, 2019, and contracts to be awarded this summer.

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From what I have learned, I believe it is critical to slow this process down because there are negative implications for our county residents who need this service to participate in our community.

Rabbit Transit is a balancing act of needs and is seen as one of the national models for coordinated transportation services. Because of the coordination, Pennsylvania has the distinction of not only providing safe and efficient transportation, but also the fifth lowest national average trip cost. This low cost is achieved through the use of a mix of funds including lottery revenue and MATP.

It is this pot of money that brokerages/privatization is targeting.

York has massive transportation needs including work (employer subsidized), medical support (MATP) and “lottery riders” (senior citizens). In addition to seniors, there are folks who need a ride to either gain or retain a job (about 68% of all riders) or who rely on paratransit support (often the only source of transportation available) for medical appointments, treatments and therapy.

I now understand the concerns much better because the medical assistance, when combined with other sources of revenue, allows for lower costs to everyone. Currently, the cost to provide service is $48 an hour. With the MATP, that fee is split three ways, and subsidized. Without the MATP, that cost increases for everyone. It is as important for employers, whom we are trying to attract, to know that affordable transportation exists. It is important for families to know that their loved ones, whether older or medically challenged, have access to safe, reliable transportation.

It is important to recognize that this idea has been tried before, with poor outcomes. I discovered that the Texas Legislature had approved a similar bill. After it was implemented, the Texas Legislature evaluated the impact. The brokering began in 2009 (removing the MATP), and the study evaluated the time period from 2011 to 2016. During that time, costs increased 400%.  Complaints increased 300% and ridership declined by 50%. These are not positive outcomes for our community to copy. More time needs to be taken to, at the very least, to study the potential outcomes. One person commented to me, “If it ain’t broke, why are we changing?”

Privatizing has not proved to be good for the least and most vulnerable among us, as evidenced by Pleasant Acres. We cannot, again, or in good conscience, allow another decision that so negatively impacts those who are already barely hanging on, be implemented without further study in Pennsylvania.  Why do we need to get rid of a program that is approved, that is working, that is thrifty, and serves the people who are among the most in need?

— Judith Higgins is a Democratic candidate for York County Commissioner.