Customers of Suffolk County Accessible Transportation (SCAT) on Wednesday will see the first fare hike in two decades when the cost of a ride climbs to $4 from $3. County officials have said the increase is needed to address the high costs of the shared-ride system, which will soon include Sunday service in some areas.
In Nassau, some disabled riders face the full impact of a 2010 decision by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- Nassau's previous bus operator -- to strictly enforce a federal regulation that requires Able-Ride to be offered only within a 3/4-mile radius of fixed bus routes. A van service operated by the Oyster Bay Rotary Club since 2010 to transport disabled people cut off from Able-Ride shut down last month after running out of money.
And with the country's elderly population expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2030, experts say the financial pressure on paratransit systems will only get worse.
"The service costs are just going to keep going up, up, up," said James Weisman, general counsel for the United Spinal Association and an architect of federal paratransit regulations. "The cost of this service is staggering, and the benefits are hard to measure."
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires transit operators to provide door-to-door transportation for disabled riders in their service area. They cannot charge those customers more than twice the standard fare.
High labor and vehicle-maintenance costs, and low per-vehicle ridership make paratransit systems expensive. Nassau spends $60 to operate an Able-Ride vehicle for an hour. In that hour, each vehicle averages 1.4 riders -- each paying $3.75 per trip, according to NICE.
"It's often less than 1 percent of the passengers carried, and 10 percent or more of the [entire transit] budget," said Michael Setzer, chief executive of the Nassau Inter-County Express, a private company that took over Nassau's bus system from the MTA last year.
In Suffolk, SCAT's $24 million budget accounts for nearly 40 percent of total transit costs, according to county figures.
Paratransit users say the service is an essential lifeline, allowing them to travel to medical appointments, jobs and schools. Many live on fixed incomes and say even small increases in fares or decreases in service could be devastating.
Some efforts to make paratransit operations more efficient have failed.
When NICE tried last year to combine more Able-Ride trips, customers complained of being delayed by hours. NICE quickly abandoned the plan.
Setzer said NICE found other ways to reduce costs, including installing global positioning systems in vehicles to improve scheduling. The agency plans to purchase smaller, less-expensive vehicles that, unlike the standard paratransit minibus, could travel on parkways, and to contract with taxi companies to transport some customers.
Able-Ride provides about 400,000 trips a year. SCAT recorded 522,243 in 2012.
Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said the county is looking at using smaller vehicles to reduce its paratransit costs.
Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), chairman of the Suffolk legislature's Transportation Committee, said he would like the county to put its system up for bid rather than overburden riders.
The $1 per ride increase represents "a lot of money for somebody who has a very small income," he said.
Weisman said paratransit operators can become more efficient by steering customers to regular fixed-route buses. Doing so would allow scaling down paratransit systems for those who need it most.
To be eligible for paratransit, customers have to prove they have a physical or mental disability that prevents them from using regular transit.
"It does meet some skepticism -- you're giving away something for nothing," Charles said. "But we see it as cost-avoidance."
For some disabled people, standard public transportation will never be a realistic option.
Marilyn Tucci, of Shirley, is blind and uses SCAT to get to her job as an outreach coordinator for the Suffolk Independent Living Organization in Ronkonkoma. The 18-mile trip can take her three hours, she said.
"It's like a punishment because you're disabled," said Tucci, 62. "I'd love to . . . be at my job in 20 minutes, but unfortunately because of my vision problem, I can't."