The market for paratransit vehicles changes rapidly as vendors come and go or as models are replaced with new innovations. Paratransit vehicle procurement for small agencies can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Many state Departments of Transportation engage in statewide vehicle purchases when it may be impractical for individual small agencies to conduct a full FTA-compliant procurement. Whether participating in a DOT-managed procurement or engaging in one at the agency level, administrators should be familiar with the many options on the market.
Paratransit service can be provided with any ADA-compliant transit vehicle ranging from small mini-vans up to full-size heavy duty buses. The various types have advantages and disadvantages in different operating contexts.
A wide array of paratransit vehicles are based on consumer model vans such as the standard 15-passenger van built by Ford or Chevrolet. A wheelchair lift is installed in either the mid-body door on the right side or in the rear doors. These vehicles generally have a more rugged frame and suspension to support the additional weight cantilevered on the lift and while on board. They also commonly have a taller roof cap added to meet ADA requirements for overhead clearance through the doorways and inside the vehicle. The advantage of this style vehicle is its relatively small size for maneuvering in tight spaces versus its passenger capacity, depending on internal configuration.
Another method modifies consumer model mini-vans with a lowered floor. These products use a ramp instead of a lift, in the right-side door or the rear hatch. Many models are available with the ability to remove the front passenger and/or driver seats to accommodate more than one wheelchair, or even allow a wheelchair user to operate the vehicle. The commercial/government models of these vehicles are sold to meet ADA specifications and generally come with manual (unpowered) ramps.
These vehicles have the benefit of being time-efficient for operators. The small size allows greater flexibility to maneuver than larger paratransit vehicles. The manual ramp reduces risk of equipment failure and can simplify the boarding process for clients, saving the operator time. However, their greatest disadvantage is also their small size; these vehicles can technically accommodate two "common" wheelchairs, but one larger wheelchair may negate the space needed to carry another rider simultaneously. However, operators may be able to simultaneously carry a person using a wheelchair and other clients not using mobility devices who can sit on the OEM bench seat in the rear or the front passenger seat, if present.
Agencies purchasing vehicles using any Federal grants must be aware that as of 2013, no consumer mini-van conversion is available that meets Buy America requirements. Under FTA procurement regulations, a "small purchase" threshold of $100,000 may allow purchase of one or two such vehicles without triggering the Buy America requirements. However, agencies conducting a procurement over this amount would have to apply for a waiver.
A third option in the small vehicle category is a relative newcomer. The "MV-1" is a custom and purpose-built accessible vehicle, blending the two previous styles together. The MV-1 meets Buy America and ADA requirements. The original developer of the MV-1, Vehicle Production Group, shut down production in 2013. According to the MV-1 website, Mobility Ventures, LLC has taken over ownership and operations for production of the van and expects to resume in the future.
Another commonly used class of paratransit vehicle is the cutaway bus, also known as a minibus. The vehicle is built with a bus body on top of a truck chassis such as those made by Ford or Chevrolet. They typically have a wheelchair lift and seat up to 15 passengers (including the driver). They can be configured with many different seating arrangements. Some agencies maximize number of wheelchair securement positions; others may balance with fixed-seats. Some agencies may also purchase these vehicles for shopper shuttle services and install luggage racks or other amenities. They may range in size from narrow-body to full 102" width. Vehicle length can be equally varied; in paratransit applications lengths of 20' to 25' are common.
A recent innovation in the field is the low-floor cutaway. The low-floor design allows riders with limited mobility easier entry and exit by removing the need to climb stairs in the vehicle. These vehicles generally have an automatic "kneeling" suspension which lowers the vehicle a few inches to curb height when the door is opened. These cutaways use a ramp instead of wheelchair lift.
The advantage of cutaway style vehicles is their greater carrying capacity for all users and flexibility of options. Depending on specifications, cutaways can be used for both paratransit and flexible or low-volume fixed-route services. Cutaways are generally larger and more expensive than van-based options. Cutaways are more customizable for agency-specific needs, but this also has the consequence of more options to familiarize oneself with.
Cutaways can be purchased at lengths over 25' and may be used for large group paratransit service. Agencies may also use large (29'-40') transit buses for paratransit service, although this is uncommon.
Centralized Versus Decentralized State Procurement Of Paratransit Vehicles For the Federal Section 5310 Program National Cooperative Highway Research Program. May 2007.
Buy America Issues Associated with State DOT Procurement of Paratransit Vehicles Using FTA Funds. National Cooperative Highway Research Program. July 2007.