Provided Dial-A-Ride: Demand for service has recovered quickly since start of pandemic

Forest Park’s dial-a-ride bus service for seniors and people with disabilities would get a boost in funding under Pace suburban bus transit agency’s proposed 2022 budget.

Under the dial-a-ride programs, Pace works with a service provider – usually either a municipality, a township or a nonprofit – to provide door-to-door service for certain populations. The transit agency and the provider split the costs. The provider sets fares and the service area, provides drivers and maintains the vehicles, while Pace provides the vehicles. 

In Forest Park, the village’s Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., operates the service, allowing seniors and people with disabilities to travel anywhere in the village for 80 cents per trip. Pace is increasing the funding for all providers because dial-a-ride ridership has recovered faster from the pandemic than fixed routes, suggesting there is greater need. 

Dial-a-ride programs were set up to fill the gaps in the fixed route services. In the more rural parts of the Chicagoland region, as well as in areas that have little to no fixed route service, the service tends to be available to all residents, but closer to Chicago, it is more likely to be geared specifically toward riders with mobility issues.

While Pace currently has eight bus routes serving Forest Park, traveling from one end of the village to another usually requires transfers, and the schedule isn’t always convenient for seniors and people with disabilities trying to make medical appointments. 

According to its 2021 budget documents, Pace currently covers 75 percent of the service deficit or pays  $3 per trip, whichever is smaller. The appropriations ordinance for the current fiscal year, which began May 1, 2021 and will end on April 30, 2022, set aside $79,160 for dial-a-ride staff salaries and $1,250 for the program’s office and equipment related expenses. The appropriations don’t necessarily reflect how much money will actually be spent – it simply sets the maximum level. 

According to the Forest Park financial report for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the most recent report available on the village website, $7,556 in dial-a-ride funding came from fares and $52,000 came from Pace. 

Driving Innovation, Pace’s current strategic plan, calls for improving dial-a-ride experiences and making them consistent across the board. As part of that, the transit agency plans to “foster management practices that build trust, accountability, innovation [and] efficiency,” “support deeper communications with local governments and other institutions” and develop online processes that would make it easier for riders to book trips. 

Pace isn’t releasing the official 2022 budget document until Oct. 20, ahead of the public hearings that will take place at the end of the month. But in budget presentations during Pace board of directors’ Sept. 15 meeting, Pace director Rocky Donahue said the transit agency proposes investing more in the dial-a-ride services. As part of that, each provider would get a 15 percent funding increase. 

According to Pace spokesperson Maggie Daly Skogsbakken, the increase comes from a portion of the federal stimulus funds it got from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. She said that the increase is part of Pace’s effort to direct the funding where it’s most needed and help improve service as the region recovers from the pandemic.

“Everyone took a hit during the pandemic, so we are passing this funding on to Pace Dial-a-Ride partners to help support their operations and to keep their communities connected to transit,” Daly Skogsbakken said. “Paratransit has seen more ridership returning than fixed route, so we know these services will be critical to recovering from the impacts of the pandemic and building back better.”

The Pace board will vote on whether to approve the budget during its Nov. 10 meeting. While the budget won’t become final until the Regional Transportation Authority board approves it in December, that vote has usually been little more than a formality.