Randy Mertes, 27, who has autism spectrum disorder, keeps busy all day. He holds a paid grocery store job and does 20 hours a week of volunteer work.
Though Mertes enjoys his independence, his mother said he does not use regular Pacebuses because he has trouble navigating neighborhoods on his own. Instead, Mertes relies on paratransit vans to get to and from his Aurora home, a service RTA is mandated to provide under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“Instead of Randy getting a driver’s license at 16, he got his ADA paratransit card,” said Randy’s mother, Sheila Mertes, who was interviewed at a South Side Regional Transportation Authority assessment center, where Randy had gone to renew his card.
Randy Mertes is one of about 60,000 Chicago-area residents who rely on paratransit. Because “Getting Around” has had several questions from readers about how to get paratransit service, this column is dedicated to explaining who uses it, and how to apply.
RTA employees interview applicants and test their “getting around” skills to see if they need paratransit, or if they could manage regular “fixed route” buses and trains. In the past year, the RTA consolidated the number of assessment sites from five in the city and suburbs to two new centers on the city’s South and North sides. This change was made because most clients live in Chicago, RTA officials said.
While the sites are new, the assessment process has stayed the same — it’s based on whether an applicant can take regular transit, not on a diagnosis or a doctor’s note, explained Michael VanDekreke, director of RTA’s mobility services department. One person with cerebral palsy may be able to take regular buses and trains, while another would find it impossible, he said.
“We’re not looking necessarily at what the disability is, but what the ability is,” VanDekreke said.
The RTA sites handle about 18,000 new or renewing applicants annually — the number has typically grown about 8 percent a year and is expected to keep growing as the population ages, VanDekreke said. Paratransit cards must be renewed every four years. Pace runs the program, which cost $163 million in 2016, up from $154.8 million in 2015, Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said.
Paratransit is funded through $8.5 million in state money and from the operating budget of the regional transit system, which is paid for through sales taxes and rider fares, RTA spokeswoman Sue Massel said. The agency is federally mandated to provide the service within a 3/4-mile radius of all CTA and Pace buses and trains, she said.
“It’s a civil right,” VanDekreke said.
How to apply
To find out if they qualify for paratransit, Chicago-area residents can call the RTA help line at 312-663-HELP (4357) and get pre-screened over the phone. They discuss their needs and learn what the service provides. A caller is then sent an application to fill out before calling the service back to set up an appointment.
VanDekreke said the agency wants people to read the materials carefully before they make an appointment, because some people “select out” once they have read the application and realize they do not qualify. “We don’t want to waste anybody’s time,” he said.
Applicants who think they qualify can then call back and schedule an appointment. The RTA provides transportation to the assessment site for an interview.
Michelle Groves, ADA site manager, said that sometimes an interview is all that is needed to determine that a person needs paratransit. But often the interview is accompanied by a physical and/or mental test.
The physical assessment may involve going outside to see if the applicant can walk four blocks, cross the street safely and negotiate curbs and inclines. If the weather is bad, applicants may be tested on an indoor course — a gym-sized room with patches of gravel, grass and uneven sidewalk and a timed crosswalk to see if applicants can manage the physical needs of taking regular transit.
For applicants with memory or other cognitive challenges, there are tests to determine if the applicant can remember landmarks like “school,” “gas station” and “park” in the right order, to see if a bus route can be learned.
Betty Tyson, 70, from East Chicago, was at the South Side center recently to get recertified for her card. Tyson says she has a number of health problems, including asthma, diabetes, back and knee problems, a heart condition and glaucoma. She uses paratransit to take her to the hospital and the doctor.
After her interview, Tyson went through the indoor obstacle course. She had no trouble getting through the crosswalk on time, or walking up and down ramps. But after walking over rocks and stepping off a curb, she began to get winded and had to sit down.
“It’s good to have this,” Tyson said about paratransit. A former social worker, she admits that now she’s the one who needs help. “It’s so hard to get around on public transportation and walk to the bus.”
After the interview and testing, applicants learn in about three weeks whether they qualify. VanDekreke said that only two percent of the applicants who come in are found ineligible, because prescreening sorts out people able to ride fixed route buses and trains.
“We spend a lot of time upfront helping people understand the process,” VanDekreke said. He said many who are found ineligible can instead receive training on how to use regular transit.
Some paratransit users also use regular trains and buses some of the time, VanDekreke said. Because they have a paratransit card, they automatically qualify for reduced fare on fixed routes. There’s a financial incentive to take fixed route — paratransit costs $3 a trip, while a reduced-fare bus ride is about $1.
The system is not perfect — users often complain about the time it takes to wait for a ride. The pickup window is 15 minutes in the suburbs and 20 minutes in the city — most other systems in the country have a 30-minute window, Pace’s Skogsbakken said. Because rides are often shared, a trip can take longer than it would if a van was taking just one person. The rides also need to be scheduled the day before.
Susan Aarup, 48, of the Clearing neighborhood, who uses a wheelchair and has taken paratransit for 24 years, said the service’s on-time performance has improved but other things have gotten worse, including Pace’s response to complaints.
Like other transit agencies, Skogsbakken said Pace wishes it had capital funds to expand and improve service. Pace uses its own paratransit vans in the suburbs and subcontractor vans in the city, but the agency would like to have its own fleet everywhere, Skogbakken said.
Skogsbakken said Pace has improved efficiency with centralized scheduling, but wants better technology and online options for passengers to check their trips and cancel them if necessary.
While acknowledging some issues, Sheila Mertes said that paratransit is crucial — without it, her son would lose his independence.
“We would be lost without the service, so we’ve learned to live with its faults,” Mertes said.