12/19/2012 07:21 EST | Updated 02/18/2013 05:12 EST

Wheel-Trans costs rising rapidly, city auditor says

Toronto’s auditor-general says the TTC must work to curtail the rising cost of operating its Wheel-Trans service.

A report by Jeffrey Griffiths to be presented at Wednesday's TTC meeting says the average trip on Wheel-Trans — a door-to-door service for transit users who can’t use the TTC due to mobility issues — costs $31 a trip, while customers pay only a $3 fare.

Under provincial law, the TTC is barred from charging people with disabilities a higher fare than those without disabilities.

With an aging population, the cost of operating Wheel-Trans has grown from $60 million in 2006 to nearly $97 million in 2012. By 2015, costs are projected to rise to $115 million.

The system has more than 41,000 registered users, about three quarters of them over the age of 65, and provides 2.7 million annual trips.

Among the report's findings:

- Although the TTC has added more accessible vehicles to its fleet, many Wheel-Trans customers that could be using the TTC are not. The report recommends offering Wheel-Trans users free TTC rides on a pilot basis so they can start using the TTC.

- Wheel-Trans applicants should be required to get an outside medical assessment before qualifying for the service. The report says the assessment process for Wheel-Trans applicants is "based entirely on the applicants’ own assertions and descriptions of their mobility challenges during an in-person interview by staff. However, these staff are not trained medical or health professionals."

- Late cancellations or no-shows are costing the system $500,000 a year. About nine per cent of requested trips end up as no-shows or are cancelled on the same day the ride is scheduled.

- A recommendation for a reduction in hours for the call reservation system (they're currently open until 11 p.m.) to make more staff available during peak hours.

- A recommendation that Wheel-Trans contracts with taxi companies be reviewed. More than 60 per cent of Wheel-Trans trips were delivered by contracted taxis at a cost of $33 million in 2011. The report says contracts with the companies were not the result of competitive bidding.

TTC CEO Andy Byford says he is taking the report very seriously.

“It’s imperative that we have a look at the underlying cost base,” he said. “My whole philosophy at the TTC is to try and drive up the quality of service, while reducing the cost. While some people say it’s impossible, I don’t believe that. I think there’s always efficiencies that can be found without cutting into the underlying quality of the service.”

Byford said the report contains many good suggestions but says he doesn't want tighter rules around who can ride.

“The suggestion made is that we don’t take medical advice into account, that’s not quite true,” he said. “We do have a third-party medical assessment to make that sure people are eligible. We wouldn’t support going with patients’ individual doctors because we found in the past that that has only led to claims and numbers of customers going higher.”