Metro aims to use travel training to help disabled passengers and save money

A recent travel training session given by Cherie Leporatti, a Metro system orientation specialist.
A recent travel training session given by Cherie Leporatti, a Metro system orientation specialist. (Photo courtesy of WMATA)
By Nicole Norfleet
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

"C'mon, Randy!" Ed Biebel said as he stood and made his way to the train's doors. He then looked back at Randy and called again for him to follow.

"It's moving!" Randy said, referring to the motion of the car. He got partly out of his seat but halted before standing, not sure whether to go. Biebel continued to coax him out of his seat as the chime sounded, announcing that the doors were about to close.

Randy, 48, has a developmental disability. Thursday was his first time on a subway.

In Watertown, Conn., where he lives, the subway is not an option. Washington area transit officials say the convenience of the rails and other fixed-route public transportation allows many with disabilities to travel on their own.

Many of the District's disabled travelers, however, rely on MetroAccess, a shared-ride service for those who can't navigate the bus and rail system. With Metro facing a projected $190 million budget gap for the coming fiscal year, new emphasis is being placed on helping people with disabilities be more independent.

Almost 15 percent of people in the District age 5 and older have some form of disability, according to a 2007 report, and many of them use Metro services. MetroAccess has about 8,000 trips on an average weekday, agency officials said. This fiscal year, there have been about 320,000 Free Ride trips on Metrobus and Metrorail. The Free Ride program allows MetroAccess customers to ride without charge on many local bus systems and Metrorail if they have a valid MetroAccess photo ID card.

And although the overall Metrorail subsidy rose 12 percent from 2000 to 2009, MetroAccess service has grown 321 percent during that time.

Last month, Metro launched a two-year pilot program to provide in-depth travel training to people with significant disabilities. The program is an expansion of the one-day individual and group travel-training orientations Metro has provided for years. The agency has partnered with several independent living centers in the region to hire more trainers. The program is funded by a $1 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The hope is that more intensive travel training will not only help people become more independent but also save money.

After exiting the Metro train at Federal Triangle Station, Randy, whose last name was not given because of federal privacy laws, said that he had enjoyed his Metro experience and that he would prefer using Metrorail over the paratransit van he normally rides in.

"If they can travel by train, that gives them more decisions, so they can go where they want, when they want," said Biebel, who traveled with Randy from Watertown.

Switching to fixed-route transportation also cuts costs. A trip on a MetroAccess shuttle costs Metro about $40 one way, but the rider pays a base rate of $2.60. The key to reducing MetroAccess costs is to make sure that only the people who really need it use it, said Christian T. Kent, assistant general manager for Metro's department of access service. Because of less stringent eligibility analyses in the past, many people have full paratransit privileges but might not need them, he said.

But that's about to change.

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