Changes to Wheels, the Lexington transportation service for people with disabilities, will mean higher fares in some cases, possibly fewer eligible riders, and more monitoring that it is hoped will improve service.
Starting March 1, Wheels riders will have to pay $3 for a trip that takes the vehicles more than three-quarters of a mile outside regular Lexington Transit Authority bus route boundaries. And those rides will be provided on a space-available basis. Also, any Wheels customer wanting a ride after regular LexTran route hours in their area will have to pay $3. Other Wheels rides will remain $1.60.
There also are plans for an outside provider to determine who is eligible to use Wheels using guidelines from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Currently, anyone with a note from a doctor can get a ride with Wheels anywhere in Fayette County from 5 a.m. to about 11:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 5 a.m. to about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, at a one-way price of $1.60.
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Wheels, operated by the Lexington chapter of the American Red Cross with funding from LexTran, the city's bus system, is undergoing changes to keep the service in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to LexTran officials. An audit last May by the Federal Transit Administration showed a lack of oversight and capacity problems in the Wheels program, they said.
"Because we were over-generous, we were not providing those that were ADA-eligible with the services they deserved," said LexTran Assistant General Manager Jared Forte.
One thing that will not change is Wheels' door-to-door service, even though ADA rules call only for curb-to-curb service.
More than 135,000 passenger trips are made each year by Wheels, according to the Red Cross.
There are currently about 13,000 Fayette County residents who are registered to use Wheels. About 3,000 of those people use the service regularly, LexTran officials said. About 400 of the 13,000 live outside the defined three-quarters-of-a-mile limits.
The changes to Wheels are reflected in a new contract between the Red Cross and LexTran for the paratransit service, which goes into effect March 1. The contract is for three years and could be extended for two additional years.
Under the new contract, if Wheels does not meet ADA requirements at a certain level during a given month, LexTran will not provide funding for the service at the level it normally would for that month, Forte said. The contract now being followed has no such teeth, LexTran officials said.
Currently, 16 percent of LexTran's budget goes to fund Wheels. That's just over $3.2 million.
"We were aware that there had been numerous complaints about the service provided by Wheels, and we wanted to address those issues," LexTran spokesman Dave Riggins said.
Wheels' on-time performance has probably been the biggest problem, Wheels rider Morry LaTour said.
LaTour, who chairs the Mayor's Commission for Citizens With Disabilities and is president of the Blue Grass Council of the Blind, said he thinks the changes to the program will result in better service.
"I don't think you're going to get too much opposition about it," LaTour said of the rate increase and new rider eligibility procedure.
Having to pay $3 for some trips is "still a lot better than paying for a cab to go anywhere," he said. "There are several people that ride that really shouldn't have to ride Wheels."
Ed Brady, director of the Wheels program for the Red Cross, said that though a fare increase is "not the kind of change you want to see," he is happy that people living outside the three-quarters-of-a-mile limit will still have Wheels service.
LexTran officials "were thinking about not picking up those folks, period," he said.
The federal audit showed a lack of tracking complaints and monitoring on-time performance and eligibility requirements of the Wheels program, LexTran officials said.
Those issues will be addressed, Forte said.
"One of the positive things that will come out of this is the (LexTran) board will be provided with more and more meaningful data to try to track and monitor the operation of the paratransit service," Riggins said
The LexTran board is expected to select a provider for Wheels eligibility determination at its regular meeting this month.
The Mayor's Commission for Citizens with Disabilities will coordinate an appeals process for people who feel they are wrongly denied access to Wheels service.
A series of public meetings to explain the Wheels changes has been scheduled, with the first ones to be held Monday.
With the changes, Wheels is "probably not going to be a perfect system, but hopefully a much improved system," LaTour said.