ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Keep Older People in Circulation

There has been a lot of justifiable complaining about local implementation of federal mandates that aren't backed with dollars. In Orange County, the problem has resulted in serious tension, pitting two deserving and needy groups in the search for transportation services.

Many elderly and handicapped people at a hearing of the Orange County Transportation Authority listened as speakers expressed their outrage over the competition for federal dollars. Now most of the county's popular Dial-a-Ride program, which provides door-to-door transportation on an individual basis for about 300,000 senior citizens every year, is in jeopardy. That program enables them to go to the grocery store, the bank or the doctor without having to beg others for a lift.

The reason for the problem is that the Americans With Disabilities Act, approved in 1990 by Congress, requires local transportation agencies to facilitate the use of mass transit for the disabled. It's a worthy cause to be sure, but the mandate came without any funding. So OCTA says it is now compelled to phase out most of its popular Dial-a-Ride program by Sept. 11 in order to fund the program for the disabled.

This robbing of Peter to pay Paul pits worthy groups and creates unnecessary bad feeling. The Dial-a-Ride service in some cases may be the only thing separating isolation and circulation in the larger world. Rather than disenfranchise an entire group by September, the board would be wise to heed some senior citizens' request to delay phasing out the program. The agency, citing the increasing demand for service for disabled riders, is pushing to comply with the federal requirement by next January even though it does not have to until 1997.

Use the extra time to see whether alternatives can't be found, instead of ending one program to save another. Bringing services to the homebound, in an area as spread out as Orange County, is expensive. Here is one good example for Washington of the unintended consequences that result from having an unfunded government mandate.

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