Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of MetroAccess trips that riders took in March. Average ridership for the month was 5,300 trips per weekday.

Disabled Riders Question Need For MetroAccess Recertification

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nadia Ibrahim, a policy adviser for the Labor Department, gets to work from her Rockville home by taking MetroAccess, a paratransit service operated by Metro. Ibrahim, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and a service dog.

Her disability is permanent.

But every three years, she must go through a time-consuming process that will cost Metro more than $1 million this year to prove a basic fact of life for her and thousands of other riders: Her disability makes it difficult for her to ride Metrorail or Metrobus and therefore qualifies her for curb-to-curb MetroAccess service.

"I find it sort of insane that you take MetroAccess to get recertified to show that you need MetroAccess," said Ibrahim, 37. "It's a process that doesn't make logical sense."

Metro officials said the process is necessary because eligibility for the federally mandated shared-ride service depends on a person's physical ability. People do not automatically qualify because they have a permanent disability.

But faced with mounting customer complaints, MetroAccess officials said they want to find ways to streamline the process.

"We are considering broader changes to the application and eligibility assessment process for the coming year, but they will require a substantial amount of public discussion, planning and, in some cases, board approval before they will be implemented," said Christian Kent, Metro's chief of disability services, which include MetroAccess.

The Washington area has numerous specialized transportation services for people with disabilities, of which MetroAccess is by far the largest. The contractor, MV Transportation, provides rides to about 19,000 customers in Virginia, Maryland and the District whose ability to use Metrorail or Metrobus is limited.

MetroAccess is the transit agency's costliest and fastest-growing service, reflecting the needs of the area's aging population. The service accounts for about 6 percent of the agency's $1.2 billion operating budget, and ridership is soaring, increasing 16 percent this year from last year, statistics show. Riders took about 5,300 trips in March.

According to a consultant's report that has not been released publicly, MetroAccess ridership in 2013 is projected to be nearly 2.8 million trips, more than double the 1.2 million trips taken last year. Those projections mean that the next five years could bring dramatically higher costs.

Long the focus of customer criticism, MetroAccess began operating under a new contractor two years ago, when Metro signed a four-year, $204 million deal with MV Transportation. But the transition was managed poorly. Record numbers of complaints about quality and reliability of service inundated the agency. Service has improved, but monthly on-time performance has failed to meet its 93.5 percent goal since July, statistics show. Officials say they have not been able to keep up with demand.

At the same time, fare increases and trip restrictions at other paratransit services, such as Arlington STAR, have diverted some rides to MetroAccess, Arlington Transit Services Manager Steve Yaffe said.

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