Winston-Salem moves towards doubling fares for disabled riders

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Winston-Salem City Council members move towards a fare hike on public-transit riders with disabilities, but delay a decision on regulating needle exchanges.

Winston-Salem moved a step closer on Monday to raising fares on users of the city’s paratransit service, which provides door-to-door service to people with disabilities as a supplement to the fixed-route bus system.

The Winston-Salem Transit Authority’s board of directors has recommended a fare increase for Trans-Aid, the city’s paratransit service, from 50 cents to $1 while eliminating a free service for Medicaid recipients. Implementation of the changes requires final approval of city council as part of its annual budget vote, which takes place in June.

“I hope people are not viewing this conversation as an attempt to balance the budget on the backs of our paratransit riders, because it’s clearly not,” said Councilman Jeff MacIntosh, a Democrat who represents the Northwest Ward, during a meeting of the finance committee of city council. “What we’re trying to do is provide a disincentive for what is the most expensive and fastest growing segment of our public [transit] system.”

A handful of advocates assailed the proposed fare changes as inconsistent with the city’s “poverty thought force” sponsored by Mayor Allen Joines and unfair in light of the city’s track record of subsidizing downtown development through financial incentives.

“I know 50 cents don’t seem like a lot to some people,” said Phillip Carter. “But it’s a whole lot when you have to go to a food pantry, when you don’t have no job, or when you feeding a grandchild. That’s a lot when you have to buy medicine. These riders are on dialysis. They have medical issues.”

Council members who are leaning towards approving the fare hike and advocates for the poor opposed to the changes agree that the potential revenue generated from raising fares is insignificant as a proportion of the city’s annual budget.

Councilman Dan Besse, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward holds a reputation as a longtime transit advocate, argued that cost containment of paratransit is essential if the city is going to improve its fixed-route service, which is also largely used by lower-income people. He also said expansion of fixed-route service to make it more convenient would allow some disabled people to use it instead of paratransit.

“I’m pushing the council this year to spend more on fixed-route,” Besse said after the meeting. “If we don’t get a handle on growth of cost in Trans-Aid, which for most of the [eligible] population is a free service, that growth element will explode in a way that it will eat the system.”

Chief among the enhancements Besse said he wants to see for the fixed-route system would be increasing frequency from one hour to 30 minutes in the highest demand routes, and restoring evening, weekend and Sunday service in areas that lost it when the transit authority implemented a new route-and-schedule system on Jan. 2.

“As a matter of political reality, I’m not going to be able to get support to make these changes if I can’t rebalance where the ridership goes,” Besse said.

Besse and other council members said Winston-Salem and Greensboro are the only cities in the state where riders pay less for paratransit than fixed-route service. Besse said 22 percent of Winston-Salem’s transit budget is consumed by paratransit, which serves about 5 percent of the overall ridership. He said the operational cost of paratransit in Winston-Salem in 2016 was $17 per ride, compared to about $4 per ride for fixed-route service.

Besse looks to Durham as a model for where he wants Winston-Salem to go. With 6.2 million rides in 2015, Besse said the ridership of Durham, a city with a slightly larger population, is roughly two and half times larger than in Winston-Salem. Durham charges $2 per ride for its paratransit service, and Besse argued that the quality of the city’s fixed-route service likely makes it convenient and attractive for a segment of the disabled population.

The model Besse doesn’t want to emulate is Greensboro, where he said the paratransit service SCAT eats up 33 percent of the overall transit budget while serving 6 percent of the ridership. With a larger population than Durham, Greensboro provided only 4.2 million rides in 2015. Undercutting Besse’s argument, Greensboro improved the quality of its service by increasing frequency across the system from 60 to 30 minutes 10 years ago; the councilman acknowledged that Greensboro and Winston-Salem’s sprawling geography might also account for the two cities having less robust ridership than the more compact Durham.

Also on Monday, the public safety committee discussed a proposal to introduce regulations on needle exchanges, but lacking a consensus on how to move forward the committee pushed off the decision to its next meeting in June.

At the request of council, city staff has put together a range of alternatives, from limiting needle exchanges by excluding them from residential zoning to regulating the service through a special use permit, which would require applicants to spend $1,000 in fees. Either option would significantly hamper the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective, currently the sole needle exchange operating in the city.

“I do not have a strong timetable on all of this,” said Councilman John Larson, a Democrat who represents the South Ward. “We have one facility that is operating currently; it happens to be in my ward. I know they have made efforts to embrace the community around them. I know that they work on a shoestring budget. I know that originally there were some rough spots going in, and a lot of that is being worked out I’m sure while we speak. However, my concern long term is that in the years ahead in other neighborhoods and in the city as a whole, where do we want to place that? I’m asking my colleagues on council, I’m asking the citizens: What kind of placement are we most comfortable with?… It’s still a moving target.”

The committee heard contrasting views on the matter.

Kate McFarland, who serves on the board of the West Salem Neighborhood Association and who lives next door to Green Street Church, said she doesn’t trust the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective.

“At this point I feel like the needle exchange should not be allowed to operate ever within a residential community,” she said. “However, if we are going to allow that, there needs to be some process by which they are forced into a relationship with neighbors.”

Colin Miller, who operates the needle exchange, responded that he and his fiancé have attended three out of the last five meetings of the neighborhood association, presented data and shared their phone numbers so they can respond to questions.

“I’m wondering why we couldn’t look for some sort of solution — I’d be willing to work on such a solution — that would not sort of put the burden of proof on the organizations that are trying to save lives and have roundly been shown that they are very successful and have little to no impact on the community,” he said.