A city program that subsidizes taxi and van rides for the elderly and disabled is in disarray, leaving participants scrambling for transportation to the grocery store and doctor’s office, seniors say.
“It’s completely messed up,” said Frederick Borden, a resident of Strawberry Creek Lodge in North Berkeley, who said he worried about his ability to get to the hospital if needed. “I’m 94 years old. Anything can happen.”
The Berkeley Paratransit Program, which dates back almost 25 years, serves up to 900 residents at a time—just under 1 percent of the city’s population. A small portion of the program’s $400,000 annual budget subsidizes van rides for the wheelchair-bound. But low-cost cab vouchers called “taxi scrip” are at the heart of Berkeley Paratransit.
The cost of the vouchers varies with income level. But the typical participant, according to city officials, spends about $36 quarterly to get $120 worth of scrip—paper “money” that cabbies can then redeem for cash at the city’s customer service center.
Seniors say applications for taxi scrip sometimes come late or not at all. And when they apply, participants say, they can go months without receiving the vouchers.
Berkeley’s Housing Director Stephen Barton, who oversees the program, said a staffing shortage is largely to blame. The department has only one full-time administrator and one part-time clerical employee to process hundreds of applications, he said.
Barton added there may also be a problem with how the Housing Department’s limited staff handles the paperwork.
“The first thing we have to do is go back and re-look at our procedures and try to find out how to not have this happen again,” he said.
The Berkeley Paratransit Program has come under fire in the past. Before January 2002, the city had contracts with just a handful of local taxi companies that would accept scrip. Seniors complained of limited service, rude taxi drivers and cabbies who refused to even pick up patrons using the vouchers.
City Council responded by requiring all 44 taxi companies working in Berkeley to accept scrip, making it easier for taxi drivers to redeem the vouchers and mandating sensitivity training for cabbies.
Helen Rippier Wheeler, a low-income senior who lives in the Lawrence Moore Manor in North Berkeley, said taxi service has improved dramatically since the last round of reform. But city officials have done little to fix the broken voucher system in recent months, she said.
“We seniors, we get a lot of lip service, but we don’t have much clout,” Wheeler said. “It’s a lot of blow and no show.”
Barton, of the Housing Department, said he may request clerical help from another office, or even a wholesale transfer of the program to another department with adequate staff to handle the program.
“It’s fine with me wherever the city manager wants to put it,” he said. “My feelings won’t be hurt if it should move.”
Emily Wilcox, who chairs Berkeley’s Commission on Disability, favors shifting the program elsewhere.
“I really wonder how many people in Berkeley would like their transportation needs handled in the Housing Department,” she said. “It’s a transportation program and I would like to see it eventually be run by the professionals in the Transportation Department.”
But moving the program could get sticky. Barton noted that the Transportation Department, like housing, is thin on clerical staff. And, while advocates for the elderly have pushed to lump the program in with the city’s other senior services in the Health and Human Services Department, he said, disabled activists have worried aloud that the move would favor the elderly and hurt their interests.
Advocates for seniors and the disabled have also squabbled over how much money should be allocated to taxi scrip, which serves a largely elderly population, and how much should go to the van program, which serves the disabled.
Resources for the Berkeley Paratransit Program are limited, and the aging and disability commissions are considering income caps that would restrict the program to the poor, who make up the bulk of current users. City Council would ultimately have to approve any changes.
City Councilmember Miriam Hawley said she does not like the idea of cutting off upper-income participants, but suggested that the savings might fund more clerical help for the beleaguered program.
“If it’s a matter of making the program work at all, we might have to take a look at it,” she said.
In the meantime, Barton said the city will encourage residents to make greater use of East Bay Paratransit, a federally mandated car and van service operated by AC Transit and BART that provides transportation for the disabled.
Patrons must call a day in advance to arrange a ride with the service. Barton said it can work well for customers who have made doctors’ appointments months in advance.
Seniors say the East Bay Paratransit phone menu is difficult to navigate, the drivers are often rude and the buses sometimes don’t show up for return trips from the hospital. Maris Arnold, former chair of the Commission on Aging, added that the elderly simply shouldn’t have to call a day in advance for transportation.
“When you get older, one of the components of your independence is to be spontaneous,” she said. “Younger people take that for granted.”