Frustrating, dangerous Metro problems for the disabled

From the seat of her electric wheelchair, Rochelle Harrod pressed the button of an elevator on the north side of Metro’s New Carrollton station.

Nothing.

She pressed it again.

Nothing.

No sign explained it was out of service. She looked around in vain for someone nearby to help.

No luck.

Harrod, 33, was born with cerebral palsy. She is one of nearly 6,000 people with a disability whom Metro has tried to encourage to use its rail and bus services instead of its more costly door-to-door shuttle, known as MetroAccess.

But for those who use wheelchairs, canes or other aids, navigating the Metro system is often a daunting trip because of the chronically broken escalators and elevators, dilapidated station platforms, poor lighting and other aging parts that have become symbols of the troubled transit system.

“They scream that Metro is accessible, but too often it is a total inconvenience,” said Harrod, who lives in Hyattsville.

Try steering a 300-pound motorized wheelchair onto a crowded bus or train. Or walking with poor — or no — vision along a narrow, dimly lit station platform, using just a walking stick as a guide.

Even relying on MetroAccess is no guarantee. Disabled patrons often endure long waits to be picked up. On occasion, some drivers never show, patrons say.

“It’s always a crap shoot with Metro,” said Angel Love Miles, 30, also of Hyattsville, who was born with spina bifida and rides Metro buses and trains in her wheelchair. “It’s hard being a crip out here trying to get around.”

Ridership, costs double

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Metro must provide equal access to public transit for those with disabilities. Metro has a seven and a half year contract expiring in 2013, worth $540 million with MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., to run its paratransit service. MV hires 10 subcontractors to help it transport more than 7,000 customers a day for Metro.

Metro has been hit with a rising demand for the costly paratransit services, fueled by an aging population and more people with disabilities using the service, experts say.

At MetroAccess, ridership and costs have doubled in the past five years, from 1.2 million passengers transported at a cost of $52.3 million in fiscal 2006 to 2.4 million passengers transported at a cost of $103.7 million in fiscal 2011.

As nonprofits and other programs have slashed their budgets for services that once helped provide transportation for disabled customers, transit agencies such as Metro have filled the need. In the District, Medicaid cuts to transportation services pushed at least 1,200 people to find other services like MetroAccess. In Fairfax County, transportation service cuts affected about 1,300 riders, officials said.

“You’ve got baby boomers coming of age and economic changes, nationally and locally, where social programs that used to provide transportation don’t,” said Christian T. Kent, assistant general manager of Metro’s Access Services department. “They’ve shut their doors or downsized.”

It costs Metro about $40 to provide a MetroAccess ride. By comparison, it costs $3 to $4 per passenger to run bus and rail.

Metro has tried to increase its MetroAccess revenue. Riders used to pay a base fare of about $3 per trip, but in February Metro changed its policy and now charges based on the distance and time of day a customer travels and the fastest way to take the trip on bus and rail. Fares are a maximum of $7. But the new fare structure has been criticized for being unfair and confusing.

Metro has tried to scale down paratransit costs by encouraging those who are able to ride on the system’s buses and trains. Each rider’s situation is reviewed and Metro determines what type of service he or she can receive based on a person’s medical condition, an interview and their travel needs. Customers with disabilities who are deemed conditionally eligible can ride buses and trains for free.

In the last year, MetroAccess officials said they’ve trained about 5,800 disabled people on how to safely use bus and rail. The savings is roughly $1.6 million a year, according to Kent. Metro officials and board members said they hope to see the costs to operate MetroAccess stabilize as more disabled riders use the rails and buses. For three years, including projections for 2011, MetroAccess ridership has hovered around 2 million riders per year. The transit agency said customer satisfaction with MetroAccess is at its highest levels in six years, with fewer than five complaints per 1,000 trips requested.

“If you can get someone who is able to use the Metro on it, you’re saving money and you’re freeing up space on MetroAccess, which is overly stressed,” said Patrick Sheehan, who is blind and heads the Metro Accessibility Advisory Committee.

A recent commute

Born and raised in the Petworth area of the District, Harrod graduated from Woodson High School in Northeast. She is the middle of three children and her younger brother has worked as a Metro bus driver for almost three years.

In 1999, Harrod sued Murrays Transport Service, a former paratransit provider for Metro, after a shuttle she was riding in made a sudden stop, causing her wheelchair to flip backwards, according to Harrod, her lawyer and court documents. She suffered a minor concussion and had surgery to repair a cracked shunt in her head that keeps fluid from building on her brain, a side effect of her illness. She received a $50,000 settlement, according to her lawyer, Keith Watters.

“I was already disabled and when you get a second strike like that, it does hurt, but it was an accident,” she said. “I don’t hold any ill will.”

Harrod earned her master’s in school counseling from Trinity University before working as a teacher at a day-care center and later as a substitute in D.C. public schools. For the past two years, she has worked as an independent living specialist for a local nonprofit.

Harrod started her commute one recent morning at 6:45.

She said her father taught her how to independently use the buses and trains when she was a teenager. She is deemed “conditionally” eligible to use MetroAccess, meaning she can use it for her longest trips whenever hip pain flares or when the weather is inhospitable — a snowstorm or extreme heat, for example. But Harrod prefers taking bus and rail, she said, because MetroAccess isn’t always reliable and tethers her to the reservation she has to make a day in advance.

She steered her wheelchair out of her one-bedroom apartment down a ramp toward the bus stop at the nearby Prince George’s Plaza Metro station.

Seven crosswalks later, under a parking garage, she waited for the F4 bus. Just after 7 a.m., the bus pulled up and the driver lowered the ramp. Harrod motored inside, giving her joystick a few wiggles to position her chair.

“Can you put the hooks on for me?” she asked the driver.

“And the one in the back, too, please?” she asked as he bent over to strap in her wheelchair.

“God bless you for doing it right,” she said once she was secured on the bus, “because all y’all tall rags don’t know how.” The driver smiled, got back behind the steering wheel and drove.

Forty-five minutes later, Harrod arrived at the New Carrollton station.

She motored her Storm TDXJ5 power wheelchair off to the elevator that would take her down a level and to the other side of the station where she catches another bus to her nearby office. But she encountered the broken elevator.

With no one within earshot to help, Harrod swung a hard right to a line of Metro buses parked along the curb.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said to a bus driver standing outside his vehicle. “Is the elevator working?”

No, he politely told her. A newspaper hawker chimed in, “It’s been out for two days now,” as the Metrobus driver offered to take her the 10-minute ride to her job.

“Sure,” she said, smiling. “This never happens — to get someone to drive you right away.”

On the bus, the driver explained his full-size bus is assigned to shuttle people with disabilities or to help out if another bus breaks down.

By 8:20 a.m., Harrod arrived at her office and powered on her computer. For the next eight hours, she took calls to help disabled people find jobs, housing and other services.

Dangers for the disabled

Using Metro can be a test of patience with daily frustrations for able-bodied riders, but for those with disabilities, traveling on Metro can be dangerous — and at times fatal.

In January 2010, nearby passengers helped rescue a disabled woman from the track bed at Union Station after her motorized wheelchair overturned. A blind Rockville man who was hit by a Red Line train died after he tumbled from the Gallery Place platform onto the tracks in December 2009. And another man in a wheelchair rolled off a platform onto the track bed in 2009 at the Southern Avenue station, injuring his head.

For those with disabilities, even daily hiccups are magnified.

If an elevator is out at a station, wheelchair riders must call and then wait on a shuttle bus to take them to their destination. Garbled announcements on trains are nearly impossible to understand for those with hearing impairments.

Denise Rush, 60, a blind legal secretary, said she tried to stop using MetroAccess every day after going through the training program to use Metro’s buses and trains, but found the system overwhelming.

“I was terrified of all the pushing and shoving on the train,” she said. “I can’t see, so I don’t know what train they’re pushing me on or if I’m going the right way. And then the escalators and elevators don’t work half the time.

“What if I get down in there and I’m trapped?” she asked.

MetroAccess also has problems.

Pickup times are not precise. Metro allows for a 30-minute window around a requested time.

Rush, who commutes daily to her job downtown from her Suitland home, said she has been dropped at the wrong place several times. She said her evening commute can take as long as two hours if the driver must pick up and drop off multiple riders.

“A 10-mile ride shouldn’t take two hours,” she said. “That’s excessive.”

Disabled riders said Metro has improved some of its safety measures. Buses have equipment on them that allow them to go lower to the curb, and bumpy tiles near the edge of platforms help vision-impaired riders navigate.

Metro has also added more vehicles to the MetroAccess fleet, put in a service called “Where’s My Ride?” and started a new alert system for elevator and escalator outages that e-mails and sends text-messages to riders.

But the system still needs improvements, riders said. They want better lighting in stations, elevators that work and raised lettering on signs. At times, Metro said there can be miscommunication of where to pick up riders, resulting in late arrivals or no shows. But agency officials said Metro is performing “above standard” on these measures.

“We’ve been able to work together with Metro to get in things that are more helpful for riders,” Silver Spring resident Sheehan said.

Bus and rail ‘freedom’

Three days a week, Harrod works at the nonprofit’s New Carrollton office. The rest of the week she splits her time between other offices in Silver Spring and Camp Springs. Her commute to Silver Spring can take about 30 minutes via two trains and a bus. To get to Camp Springs, she calls MetroAccess for the 90-minute ride.

“Using bus and rail gives you freedom to come and go as you please,” Harrod said. “With MetroAccess, you have to be on a schedule and you’re afraid to change it because you might not be able to get a ride at the right time and then you’re stuck waiting.”

One recent afternoon after a day of work, Harrod packed up her laptop. She rode a bus to the New Carrollton station and found the same elevator that had been out during her morning commute was now working.

“Wow,” she said, as she pressed the up button. “Someone up above must be looking out for me.”

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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