Reagan transit plans put new luster on 'paratransit'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Reagan administration policies so far amount to anything but a joy ride for Americans who commute to work. Decontrol of domestic crude oil prices has boosted the cost of fueling an automobile, and proposed cuts in federal masstransit subsidies likely would increase fares and reduce service on bus and subway routes if the cuts clear Congress.

However, in the view of many analysts, these policies may be the best thing that ever happened to alternative "paratransit" services -- van and car pools, subscription buses, jitneys, and shared-taxi services.

"On the one hand, I should bemoan the retrenchment of the federal role in transit. But looking at the prospects for ride sharing, it is not threatening at all," says Barbara Reichart, chief of the riding-sharing branch of the Federal Highway Administration.

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Some 16 million people already commute to work daily in a car or van pool, a development mainly resulting from individual initiative, Mrs. Reichart points out. Less financial help from the federal government could force local transit authorities to actively encourage paratransit alternatives, she says, bringing dramatic growth in the availability of these services.

Promoters of paratransit long have argued that, in many cases, these services can offer a more economic and flexible alternative to conventional mass transit.

Instead of a public transit authority adding a new bus route or building an expensive, fixed subway line to serve an expanding community, it could encourage other private bus or taxi operators to serve the market -- or even help individuals form their own ride-sharing pools. These kinds of services may save money with lower labor costs, smaller vehicles than conventional transit buses, and routes that can be more easily adapted to changing community development patterns.

"Public transit authorities can play an important role if they see their job as one of developing transportation alternatives, not just providing service," says Daniel Roos, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, many transit operators have tended to view paratransit services as "competition with their own operations and they often did not have the expertise to develop these alternatives," Mr. Roos adds.

Analysts now see this attitude changing under the pressures of escalating transit costs and less willingness from all levels of government to provide higher subsidies to mass transit. Public transit authorities, on average, recover only about 43 percent of their operating costs from the fare box. The rest comes from federal, state, and local government sources.

President Reagan has proposed eliminating federal operating subsidies to mass transit by 1986.

One of the fastest-growing alternative forms of group transit is van pooling. Typically, companies provide vehicles and a driver, and employees who use the van service pay a monthly fee to cover operating costs.

The National Association of Van Pool Operators (NAVPO), a trade group, estimates the number of van pools in the United States is doubling annually and now totals from 15,000 to 18,000.

"The day President Reagan announced the deregulation of gasoline prices, my phone calls doubled," says Ed Marks, executive director of NAVPO.

Also, some public transit authorities are encouraging their own patrons to establish van pools.The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District in California helps commuters set up van pools by first leasing them a vehicle and then showing them how to operate a ride-sharing service for eight or nine months. The individual or group is then encouraged to buy a van and run the service independently.

Furthermore, some public transit authorities are contracting with charter bus companies, taxi operators, or other outside providers of transportation. Yet these arrangements remain relatively few.

Transit operators claim one of the issues which has hampered their ability to seek transportation services in the private sector is labor protection regulations.

Federal regulations governing grants to transit authorities require that their employees not be hurt by the grants. Transit officials claim this has given organized labor veto power over how federal funds are spent, precluding them from developing services relying on private contractors.

However, there is hope this issue will be resolved under a new federal paratransit policy statement being developed by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.

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