RTB - Between A Rock And A Hard Place

A Letter From From  Michael Ehrlichmann, Chairman RTB

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to some of the concerns expressed by ACCESS PRESS and your readers relative to Metro Mobility.

For several months prior to and during the last legislative session, the Regional Transit Board staff and myself dedicated most of our time to meeting with legislators in the effort to persuade them of the need to expand transit funding, particularly Metro Mobility.  Often our paths crossed with members of the disability community who shared our goal of full funding.  We tried very hard to put forth the argument that all citizens regardless of their economic or physical status had a right to public transit.

During the session we continued our meetings with individual legislators and appeared at many committee hearings where we presented arguments for full funding of this important program.  On several occasions I brought together representatives of the disability and senior communities to share with them the need for all of us to go to our legislators and draw in a dramatic way their attention to the full funding of Metro Mobility.  A great many people responded to the call, an impressive rally was held prior to the biennial appropriation.

Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, the legislature provided the RTB with only $25.3 million dollars to operate Metro Mobility.  That left us $4 million dollars short of what we needed to maintain an existing level of services.  In addition, the appropriation bill included language that, unlike in past years, prohibited the RTB from using other revenue sources, including the property tax to supplement Metro Mobility.  For instance, in the last biennium, we also received $4 million dollars less then our request for Metro Mobility.  However, at my request, the Board approved the transferring of $4 million in property tax dollars to Metro Mobility.

What we are left with then is that the RTB must now, by state law, reduce the expenditures of Metro Mobility by at least $4 million dollars.

Those advocates in the senior and disability communities who assisted in this lobbying effort, will also recall that each of the RTB legislative budget presentations were punctuated by a legislative call for a reduction in the cost of Metro Mobility.  Likewise, the Metropolitan Council recently rejected our Five-Year Transit Plan, in part due to the perception that we were spending too much money on Metro Mobility.

Complicating the task of reducing expenditures is the added pressure of being forced to make cuts as soon as possible.  The fiscal year begins July 1, the longer we wait, the more impact these initiatives will have.

As witnessed by the RTB’s recent rescinding of the service area cuts, there is significant confusion and misunderstanding as to limitations imposed on the RTB by state and federal law on how service must be provided and where cuts can be made.  Many public officials as well as consumers are not aware that the RTB cannot prioritize Metro Mobility trip requests or even legally ask the purpose of a trip.  Regardless of whether a consumer is going to work, dialysis or the hairdresser.  It is illegal by both state and federal law to distinguish between trip purpose.  The RTB cannot employ a financial criteria based on need for determining eligibility.  Like Social Security, if you’re eligible for service we must provide that service.  The RTB is also constrained from limiting the number of trips that a person can reserve for a given day.  As many of you know, not only are many more people becoming certified for this service, but people are riding it more often.

An opinion from the Minnesota State Attorney General’s office stipulates that, the RTB cannot limit rides by offering them on a first come, first serve basis.  State law mandates that anyone certified eligible for Metro Mobility can make whatever trip request they wish, and those requests must be honored.  Metro Mobility then is very much like entitlement programs such as AFDC and Medical Assistance: level of funding cannot determine level of service.

With these and other restrictions, and the demand to cut $4 million dollars, the RTB is left between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

While I was the sole vote against the recent action by the RTB to raise fares and reduce service area, I fully understand why my colleagues felt forced to take the vote they did.  The increase in fares, supported by many in the disability community, was instituted so as to avoid cutting an equal amount of service.

The service cuts in Area II were recommended by the RTB staff essentially because they were one of few legal means to reduce expenditure.  There was no attempt to “pick on” a certain geographical part of the metropolitan area.  It was simply an attempt to reduce expenditure by bringing paratransit service into conformance with proposed federal regulations which require paratransit service to match regular route service.  While it might have been more fair to cut hours of service across the board, federal law would prohibit it.  It’s a “Catch 22” for those living in these suburban communities, less bus service: less paratransit service.

As I’m sure you are aware, several counties and a direct request from the Metropolitan Council, Area II service cuts were rescinded by the TRB.  However, what still remains is the RTB’s obligation to reduce the program by $4 million dollars, to do that we must reduce demand.  Since we cannot reduce demand geographically, what appears to be left as a possible cut is to limit the number of people eligible for the service.  Therefore, the challenge to the RTB is to re-examine our certification process and determine how best to limit this demand and hurt the fewest people.

As I explained over and over again to the legislators, any cuts in this program will be painful and extremely difficult to achieve.

As a result of the appointment of five new RTB Board Members as well as the general lack of understanding of state and federal regulations.  I have directed that any further consideration of reduction of service be delayed until after a forum is held at which time, state, federal and Metropolitan Council officials can explain to all of us the final regulations for paratransit service and their expectation of where we should go with the system.  The date of that forum will hopefully be in that first week of August following the release of the final federal regulations.  In my estimation, any program changes must be made with a full understanding, if not approval of all stake holders.  We must all possess an equal understanding of the task ahead of us.

In conclusion, let me add that I am confident each and every RTB Board Member is open to suggestions as to how to best meet budget demands.  This is a task that none of us initiated, nor gain any satisfaction from.  Personally, for several years prior to my appointment as Chair of the RTB, I fought hard for expansion and improvement of Metro Mobility.  I firmly believe that transit is a right and that the quality of a person’s life is determined by their mobility.  The decisions ahead of us will be difficult ones.  We must try to work together to ensure as little disruption to people’s lives as possible.

Thank you for your continuing interest and concerns.  The RTB welcomes your input.