July 25 2012 09:15 AM

They say new transit policies hurt more than they help

Ron Dennison, a case manager for Traveler’s Aid, manages to smile despite being frustrated by recent changes to transit policies.
Photo by Kelly Davis

In 2009, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) introduced its new regional transit pass, the Compass Card, with a clever media event. Playing off the trademarked phrase "Tap & Ride," tap dancers demonstrated how riders simply tap the microchip-embedded card on a validation machine to board a bus, trolley or train run by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) or the North County Transit District.

Since then, rollout of the Compass Card hasn't been so smooth—especially for social-services providers. Stop-and-start attempts to switch the agencies over to the more durable, credit-card-like pass have resulted in confusion and, for some providers, increased costs. For starters, providers question the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all system: Compass Cards cost $2 each and are intended to be kept and reloaded by regular transit users. This doesn't work well for agencies whose clients need sporadic assistance, and it especially doesn't work well for those serving the homeless.

"I lot of the homeless folks can't hold on to anything," says Deb Mitchell, director of Presbyterian Urban Ministries in Sherman Heights. "A lot of these folks come to us because they've lost their California ID—a lot of the work that we do is just getting them that California ID. Now, let's complicate that by requiring them to have another card that they have to secure and take care of… instead of, ‘Here's a day pass. Take care of your business today.'" 

Mitchell's organization is part of the Metropolitan Area Providers of Social Services (MAPPS), a group of representatives from 30 outreach organizations that meet monthly. Mitchell plans to send a letter to MTS that sums up problems that her organization and other MAPSS members have been facing in trying to assist people with public transportation.

The general consensus, the letter says, is "that these changes target and further disadvantage the very people who should be empowered by transportation: the poor, the disabled, those seeking employment, those in need of medical assistance and seniors."

Providers CityBeat spoke to for this story use a variety of fare media to assist their clients: Some give out single-day paper passes to people who need to get to a job interview or doctor's appointment. Others use passes that cover multiple days for clients who need help until they receive an assistance check or paycheck from a new job. There are also monthly passes for seniors and disabled clients who can't otherwise afford them.

During the last few months in particular, providers say they've been subjected to policy changes regarding what kind of fare media can and can't be used, resulting in clients being kicked off buses and trolleys and additional costs for already-strapped providers.

One organization that used to purchase monthly paper passes for disabled clients just released from the hospital was told at the beginning of the year that those passes were being discontinued. A case manager, who asked that CityBeat not identify her or her organization by name, said they've been trying for months to get Compass Cards for clients.

"There was nothing set up for us to be able to continue to [buy monthly passes]," she says. They've had to resort to transporting clients by cab, resulting in increased costs of more than $10,000 a month.

"Ninety-nine percent of them have no money for transportation," she says of her clients.

When Compass Cards were first introduced by SANDAG, they were described as a way to cut out the cost of printing paper passes and reduce fraud, especially with monthly passes for seniors and disabled people, which cost $18 compared with $72 for an adult pass.

"An unfortunate and unintended consequence of this steep discount is that it encourages people who don't qualify... to attempt to get one," says MTS spokesperson Rob Schupp.

The provider who asked not to be named said it used to be that a doctor's note was enough for a disability pass. Now, anyone who doesn't currently receive Medicare, disability or SSI has to go through a rigorous approval process that includes having a doctor fill out a lengthy form and getting a special photo-ID Compass Card. Her organization was willing to help clients with the longer forms and pay the $7 for the card.

"I don't mind the new approval process," she says; she just wants to be able to get her clients the transit passes they need. Many have applied for disability or SSI and have no money and no way to get to medical appointments. "There is a whole population out there who's being deprived, and they are disabled…. They're in this waiting mode until it actually gets started."

Ron Dennison, a case manager for Traveler's Aid who works out of Father Joe's Villages, says he used to be able to buy rolls of tokens at a discounted rate of $1.83 each. Then, with a transfer, a client could get where he needed to go on that single token.

"A year or so ago, they eliminated all transfers, which means tokens were worthless, because without a transfer, you can't get anywhere," he says.

A trip to the VA hospital, for instance, costs $9.75 each way, Dennison says.

Earlier this year, social-services providers were told to go back to using tokens, but instead of being good only for a one-way fare, they were told, clients could cash in two $2.50 tokens for one $5 day pass.

But the buses didn't recognize the tokens. 

"My clients were told to get off the bus," Dennison says.

Schupp says MTS was told by SANDAG and Cubic, the company that makes fare boxes, that the tokens would work.

"When we found out that there was a problem, we contacted all social-services agencies and apologized for the error, refunded any money and instituted a plan that would enable agencies to use their existing stock of paper day passes," he says.

Mitchell says she used to buy sets of four-day and single-day paper passes and combine them for clients who had multiple doctors' appoints over consecutive days; for those who'd recently found employment but didn't have the income to buy a pass, she'd give them a combination of two four-day passes and two single-day passes to get them through two weeks until they got their first paycheck. On June 28, she got an email from MTS saying that multi-day paper passes would be valid only through July and that she'd need to cash in any leftovers. Four-day paper passes cost $15 each, but Mitchell was told that when she cashes them in, she'll get only three single-day $5 passes.

"We budgeted for the year thinking, ‘These four-day passes are great because we can provide four days for the price of three days,'" she says. "Four-days will now cost us $20, which is huge to small agencies…. We plan to the penny. It's a hardship to us, but it's going to be a hardship to the folks that we serve."

She estimates that the switch from the four-day $15 passes to single-day $5 passes will mean the loss of 100 rides for the remainder of 2012 and between 300 and 400 rides next year. While a Compass Card can be loaded up for one to four days, 30 days or a full month, it still requires that initial $2 purchase price. For a limited time, providers who give out monthly passes have been able to buy temporary Compass Cards at $1 each. Dennison has taken advantage of this, but even that small extra cost means he's buying one fewer pass each month.

Dennison says the problems he's been having are compounded by a recent policy change that, due to safety issues and a desire to speed up boarding and disembarking, limits what you can bring on a trolley or bus to items that you can fit on your lap or in the space between you and the seat in front of you. Dennison's clients are homeless, and many carry heavy loads.

"You don't have to break down your bicycle, but you do have to be able to break down your stroller, your shopping cart or your walker that you're using as a moving device. That's aimed toward my people, as far as I'm concerned. Most of the other people who ride the trolley will have a briefcase or a laptop, and that's it. So, it is really directed towards one set of people."

Schupp says that, for 2012 at least, there will be no additional changes to fare policies—social-services providers can use paper single-day passes for the remainder of the year, and the plan is to work with them to develop what Schupp describes as a "limited-use" Compass Card that will be slimmer than the regular cards and cost less to produce.

"Once we have worked out all the details, we will present this idea to social services for input before implementing," he says.

Jim Lovell, who heads up the Third Avenue Charitable Organization, says providers have felt shut out of the decision-making process. Lovell was happy to hear that they'd be asked for input on future changes.

"[MAPSS] has been talking about this since the beginning of the year, and I know there's been lots of concern that there doesn't seem to be anybody paying attention."

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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