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Suffolk raising fares for disabled riders

Marilyn Tucci, 61, of Shirley, boards a bus

Marilyn Tucci, 61, of Shirley, boards a bus with her guide dog "Anna" operated by the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation. (Feb. 05, 2013) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Suffolk County plans to raise transit fares for disabled riders by $1 per ride, leaving some residents on fixed incomes to make difficult decisions on how often they travel by bus.

The cost of a trip on Suffolk County Accessible Transit (SCAT) will go to $4 from $3 -- a 33 percent increase -- beginning May 1.

The increase would be the first time Suffolk has raised SCAT fares since it created the shared-ride paratransit system in 1994. The County Legislature last year approved the first fare hike in 20 years on all fixed-route buses, but opted then not to change fares on SCAT, which carries about 504,000 people annually.

At $4 per trip, SCAT would be one of the most expensive paratransit systems in the region, matching those in Westchester County. Nassau's Able-Ride costs $3.75 per trip and the per-ride fare for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Access-A-Ride in New York City is $2.75.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said that, while SCAT fares have stayed the same for 19 years, the cost of running the system has soared. Suffolk's bus system, including SCAT, will cost the county $29 million this year, nearly double the $15 million in costs in 2005, she said.

"This is a cost that all of the county taxpayers bear, and we'd like to be able to increase the fares associated with paratransit," Baird-Streeter said.

Marilyn Tucci, spokeswoman with the Suffolk Independent Living Organization, which advocates for the disabled, called the fare increase "drastic." She said it could severely limit the ability of some disabled residents to leave their homes.

"Somebody who's collecting SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and uses SCAT a couple times a month, they're going to be forced to pick and choose now what they can afford to do," said Tucci, who is blind and relies on SCAT to get to work. "That extra $2 a day adds up."

County officials said the $1 increase would generate about $470,000 in new revenue each year.

Ryan Lynch, associate director for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group, called the increase "premature" because Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed a $2.1-million increase in state transit aid for the county.

Lynch also said the increase was unfair because it does not come with any improvements, such as extended hours or Sunday service.

"If they're going to pay more, then they should get better service in the process," Lynch said of SCAT riders.

Public hearings on the increase will be held March 6 and 7.

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