Metro Takes New Look at D.C. Area Paratransit Costs

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The growing population of elderly and disabled people in the Washington area is threatening to overwhelm the door-to-door regional paratransit service that Metro operates for those who are unable to ride the subway or bus, officials said.

MetroAccess has experienced double-digit growth in the past three years. And with the aging of the baby-boom generation, enrollment is expected to increase significantly -- perhaps as much as 50 percent -- over the next five years. In addition, tight budgets have forced some jurisdictions to trim transit services for the disabled, sending more customers to MetroAccess, according to Christian Kent, Metro's manager for access services.

Taxpayers are footing most the bill for the added costs. On Thursday, officials will review ridership and costs and discuss policy decisions the Metro board could take to cut costs, such as increasing fares and limiting service to minimum federal requirements.

No board members supported those politically controversial options during recent budget talks.

"As the population of people with disabilities increases, the cost of the service is going to increase along with it," Kent said. "It's not that people are using the service more. It's that more people are using the service."

Transit agencies across the country face similar problems, but the Washington region stands out.

"It's really a mecca for people with disabilities," Kent said. "There's much better employment opportunities, more awareness and attention to disability-related issues, so many people with disabilities choose to live here."

MetroAccess is by far the transit agency's costliest and fastest-growing service. An estimated 25,000 people are enrolled in the program, which provides door-to-door shared rides for a $2.50 one-way flat fare. Each trip costs Metro $38. The service accounts for about 6 percent of the agency's $1.4 billion operating budget. Riders take about 7,500 trips on an average weekday.

Ridership increased 16 percent this year and is projected to jump 13 percent next year, to about 2.2 million passengers annually.

Although Metrorail passenger fares cover 84 percent of the cost of a trip, MetroAccess fares cover about 6 percent of the cost. The remaining 94 percent comes from taxpayers in the jurisdictions served by Metro. MetroAccess users also are allowed to bring one personal care assistant or companion, who rides for free.

The cost to operate MetroAccess next year is projected to be about $86 million, a 30 percent increase from two years ago. The increased costs are one reason Metro has faced budget shortfalls in each of the past three years. Federal law requires Metro and other transit agencies to provide the service, but the agencies are not reimbursed by the federal government.

According to U.S. Census figures, there are at least 336,468 people age 65 and older living in the jurisdictions served by Metro. Of those, more than 36 percent, or more than 122,000, are disabled. In the next five years, many of those who are in the next oldest age group, 21 to 64, will age, swelling the ranks of seniors, Kent said.

The downsizing of the District's Medicaid program has resulted in a 120 percent increase in MetroAccess riders from three years ago, according to statistics. But Prince George's County accounts for the biggest number of passengers.

Based on recommendations of an industry peer review, Metro officials said they plan to meet with advocacy groups this summer to discuss ways to tighten eligibility. A person with limited vision, for example, might need to use MetroAccess at night but, with training, be able to ride the subway or bus during the day, Kent said. Riders who are eligible to ride MetroAccess can ride the rail and bus for free.

MetroAccess service also exceeds federal requirements. The service provides transportation to anywhere within the local jurisdictions served by Metro. Federal law requires Metro to provide service only within three-quarters of a mile of existing rail and bus routes. The agency estimates that it could save $2.8 million a year by limiting service to the federal requirement.

Under federal law, Metro can also charge paratransit users up to twice the comparable fare for a fixed-route system, such as Metrorail.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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