First she lost her balance. Then Sammi Riley began to lose use of her legs and vision in her left eye.
Doctors diagnosed Riley with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, a disease characterized by a “steady worsening of neurologic functioning.”
“It’s not a good disease,” Riley said, pausing. “There’s no cure, you know.”
She spends little time complaining about her troubles, which include retiring from her career of 41 years in information technology management for hospitals following her diagnosis about 10 years ago.
Today, the 72-year-old Burlingame resident devotes herself to volunteer work and serving on the San Mateo County Paratransit Coordinating Council. She represents “consumers” -- the thousands of residents and workers who rely on Redi-Wheels/RediCoast and similar services provided by neighboring counties to get where they need to go.
“I don’t know what I would do without Redi-Wheels,” Riley said. “There’s lots of things to do. I can’t sit around doing nothing.”
Riders pay $4.25 each way for a Redi-Wheels/RediCoast trip. The service provider, the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans), estimates it costs about $50 for each of the 25,000-plus monthly trips it provides. That leaves a large budget gap as the federal government requires transit agencies to offer paratransit services but provides no funding to support them.
SamTrans serves the neediest residents in San Mateo County: 41 percent of riders overall have incomes below $25,000
To help pay for a service the County's most vulnerable residents rely upon, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has committed $20 million over four years, through June 30, 2017. The funding comes from Measure A, the half-cent sales tax approved by local voters in November 2012 to help fund essential services.
"A robust paratransit system allows people to get out of the house, do their own shopping, and creates a sense of independence," said San Mateo County Supervisor Carole Groom.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires SamTrans to provide origin-to-destination paratransit service anywhere within three-quarters of a mile of an operating bus route. SamTrans made a commitment early on that Redi-Wheels would go beyond the federally mandated requirements to provide the greatest opportunity for mobility, freedom and independence to all San Mateo County residents. Redi-Wheels provides service well beyond the ¾ mile limit and service hours operated by SamTrans buses within San Mateo County.
The County’s subsidy allows SamTrans to maintain those expanded service levels as the organization works to resolve an ongoing structural deficit, and steadily increasing service demands.
Mike Levinson, chair of the Paratransit Coordinating Council, said the County’s subsidy has allowed SamTrans to spare Redi-Wheels from the same service cuts that affected SamTrans bus service in late 2009. He relies on Redi-Wheels several days a week to get from his home in Daly City to his volunteer work (“Everybody likes to meet in the middle of the county.”) and medical appointments as well as for shopping and visits to friends.
Levinson, a retired computer programmer, was diagnosed as a teenager with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that has left him legally blind. Everyone who uses the service has a different story, he said, but all rely upon it. “It makes you more independent.”
Redi-Wheels provides more than 70,000 trips a year to County services
At peak times up to 83 paratransit drivers are on the road anywhere from deep in San Francisco’s Financial District to Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto and all points in between. Redi-Wheels also provides some trips using Serra Cab during periods of high demand and late at night.
Riley takes Redi-Wheels to physical therapy as well as for shopping and to visit friends. She uses the service so frequently she often sees many of the same drivers.
On a recent day, driver Frank Ng pulled up in front of her apartment. He helped her board a white van with SamTrans' familiar blue and red trim. Then he spent several minutes securing her chair with a number of thick straps. “He’s a good driver,” Riley said, “a very patient man.”
Frank Ng drives Sammi Riley home to following a meeting in San Carlos of the San Mateo County Paratransit Coordinating Council.
Published April 2016.
Are you, or is a loved one, eligible for paratransit service?
Paratransit is for persons with disabilities who cannot independently use regular SamTrans bus service some of the time or all of the time. The San Mateo County Transit District provides paratransit using Redi-Wheels on the bayside of the county and RediCoast on the coastside. Trips must be prearranged. All of SamTrans' buses are accessible, and many persons with disabilities are able to use the regular fixed-route bus service. However, if you are unable to use fixed-route transit for some or all of your trips, you may be eligible for paratransit. If you're not sure whether you're able to use the regular bus, call SamTrans at 650-508-6241.
A ride is $4.25. People who receive Supplemental Security Income, General Assistance, or Medi-Cal may be eligible for Lifeline, the reduced fare program. Call 650-508-6241 for an application.