Governor aims to rein in auxiliary transit costs
Governor Deval Patrick plans to sign an executive order today aimed at controlling the escalating costs of providing specialized transportation for people with disabilities, Medicaid recipients, and others, state transportation officials said last night.
The federally mandated programs, including the MBTA’s The Ride, provide a lifeline for thousands of people across the state but cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with usage and expenses soaring.
The Ride, a service for those whose disabilities prevent them from using the conventional T, has quadrupled in cost over the past decade and is poised to break $100 million next year, absorbing nearly 10 percent of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s operating budget. But the roughly 2 million trips it provides represent less than 1 percent of all MBTA service.
And an assortment of related services, known as Human Service Transportation, provide more than 5.5 million trips at over $100 million for Medicaid recipients, people with developmental disabilities, early intervention families, and others.
No one agency can solve the cost issue, the officials said. The governor’s order will bring together leaders from several state cabinet agencies — the Department of Transportation, Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Executive Office of Elder Affairs, and Department of Veterans’ Services — with users and advocates to coordinate ways to manage or cut expenses while maintaining or improving service, Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan said.
“This is not slash and burn,’’ Mullan said. “This is about finding a better way to comply with our mandate and providing service to an important [population] that needs this service.’’
Transportation officials have already been examining ways to rein in the cost of The Ride. The T requires Ride applicants to obtain a signature from a doctor or human service provider. But it is the only major transit agency that does not do its own assessments, something that Richard A. Davey, general manager of the MBTA, hopes to change by January.
Davey said last night that the T is also trying to lure back customers who had a bad experience on the mainstream bus, subway, and train system years ago, before the MBTA, prompted by a federal lawsuit, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in station accessibility and equipment improvements and staff training.
“It is incumbent on us, for those folks who can use that fixed-route system, to really market ourselves,’’ he said.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, said The Ride is one of the T’s fastest-growing costs and is poised to soar even higher as baby boomers age.
“We’re all going to be dependent upon The Ride, and we’ve got to find a way to make it do what it’s got to do’’ in an affordable way, said Regan, whose board represents cities and towns served by the T. “The idea of a coordinated effort — not making it just the T’s problem, but bring all the other funders and users into a room — can only be a good thing.’’
Officials and advocates say there are opportunities to spend more efficiently by better coordinating the trips made by one service or across service providers.
“The reality is, if you’re going to a grocery store, you’re going to have a Ride van going there, you may have a group-home van going there, you may have a senior shuttle van going there, and you may have a bus going there,’’ said Christopher Hart, director of urban and transportation projects for the Institute for Human Centered Design and a member of the state’s Transportation Advisory Committee.
Hart, who uses a wheelchair and has both sued and consulted for the MBTA, said the executive order is a “huge step forward,’’ but cautioned that it could be a long and delicate process. “The executive order helps get all the agencies to the table,’’ he said. “But it’s going to be a big table.’’
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at email@example.com.