OCEAN CITY – The impact of altering the ADA handicapped bus service on the citizens who rely on it, might be far more costly than any monetary boost that Ocean City could hope for.
About two-dozen people flocked to City Hall on Tuesday night to voice their concerns at a public hearing addressing a proposal to change the fare structure for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) curb-to-curb bus service in Ocean City, and the pleas ranged from heartfelt to harsh.
Currently, riders whom are ADA eligible and below the age of 60 can ride all day long for $2. Senior residents whom are ADA eligible ride for free and non-resident seniors can ride all day for $1.
The proposal, which was made last month by Public Works Director Hal Adkins as part of the town’s 225 item cost cutting or revenue enhancement measures, calls for raising the price of ride-all-day fares to $4, which would bring in anywhere from $8,000-$20,000 in enhanced revenue.
No one would argue that the ADA para-transit service is a moneymaker for the town, as it costs roughly $250,000 to run the service, with $110,000 of that cost being absorbed by a grant from the state. The service itself brings in a small fraction of the remaining $140,000 in operational costs by way of revenue, Adkins explained.
“This service has brought in anywhere from $2,500-$5,000 per year in revenue. That is it,” said Adkins.
Councilman Jim Hall worried aloud last month that the hearing was going to “get ugly and anger a lot of people” who rely on the service as their only means of transportation and the council was notably silent both during and after the hearing, as residents took turns explaining why the fare raise to $4 would be debilitating to their way of life.
“This just isn’t a case of mentioning $4 like it is nothing,” said 20-year-Ocean City resident and ADA bus user David Seibold. “We may be few in numbers but we represent a lot of people who rely on this service, and many of us have fixed incomes.”
Sue Cooke, a resident of Ocean City who suffered a stroke at the age of 35, moved to Ocean City for the quality of the local school system for her son, and the ADA bus service as she is unable to drive due to seizures and being partially paralyzed on one side.
“To pay $4 would be a big hardship, and I know that $4 doesn’t seem like much to most people, but for me, being on a fixed income, that’s an additional $50 a week for me, and I can’t afford that,” she said.
Adkins explained that the current roster of ADA eligible riders is at 332, but only 87 are considered active users of the bus, meaning daily or several rides throughout the week.
Still, Mayor Rick Meehan mentioned that despite what some could consider only a small quantity of people who use the service, the importance of that service to help ensure the rider’s quality of life is the real issue here.
“We have to look at everything here, but I’m not sure if any changes are going to end up being made. Ocean City benefits people in a lot of different ways,” said Meehan. “Some enjoy amenities like Northside Park and others rely on services like the ADA bus service. It may only be a small number of people, but it’s very important to them, and we need to keep that in mind,” he said.
Still some in the audience thought that it came down to the issue of entitlement.
“The city has an $87 million budget and we are talking about a few dollars. This isn’t about money, this is about people like myself who have been here for 20-some-odd years, and we have served our city over and over again, and we are entitled. I don’t want a handout, but I know that I can’t afford $4 per day, said Jim McGinniss.
Adkins noted that competitive pricing for Locally Operated Transit Systems or LOTS was substantially more than what Ocean City currently charges.
“The other LOTS charge double their fixed route, which is allowable by federal law. We spoke with Washington, St. Mary’s, and Annapolis, and their fares are all $2 one way, said Adkins. “Howard County charges $4 one way and the local Shore Transit charges $6 one way.”
Wheelchair bound resident Betty Sturgis hoped that Council could understand that the ADA bus service was more to her than just a means of transportation.
“I’d love to keep my independence and I can’t do that without the ADA para-transit bus service. I hope that in this new year, and with a new president, good things can happen to those special people who need special help. Please work with us,” said Sturgis.
Council President Joe Mitrecic assured the public at the beginning of the hearing that no decision had been made to raise the rates for the service and that the input received would play a role in the decision. He explained that he emphasized that point because people are often “very skeptical of the public hearing process and government in general.”
Mitrecic felt that the ADA para-transit bus was a service provided to the people who need it, but not for any reasons of entitlement.
“It’s not an obligation for us to provide or an entitlement for anyone to receive, but it is a service that we want to provide for our residents, and it’s one of the things that makes Ocean City a better place,” said Mitrecic.
Mitrecic said the pleas from users of the bus were heard clearly by council.
“The impact far outweighs the small amount of cost savings, and the people made it very clear at the hearing just how important the service is to them,” he said.