Metro van service for disabled shouldn't be on chopping block

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Here's an ethical question that the Metro board will be answering soon: How many hundreds of blind people or wheelchair users are we willing to strand in their homes to save several million dollars by eliminating van services for the disabled?

Aren't you glad YOU don't have to answer that one?

When the economy sours, those who are needy and vulnerable suffer most. That sad truth is on display as Metro considers shrinking its MetroAccess paratransit service. It operates the white vans that provide door-to-door transportation for people physically unable to use regular subway or bus service.

MetroAccess is costly. But it is crucial in allowing disabled people in the Washington region to enjoy something closer to a normal quality of life.

William Lee Jr., 64, who has used a wheelchair since birth because of cerebral palsy, is a potential victim of the cutbacks. He lives in Bowie and depends on MetroAccess for virtually all of his travels.

One proposal that Metro is considering would end such service in Lee's community on nights and weekends. He wouldn't be able to visit friends, see a movie or shop at nearby Wal-Mart and Target stores.

"I am independent now, [but] it would be impossible for me to go anywhere," Lee said. Taxis in his area can't handle a wheelchair, he said, and he "can't afford an accessible vehicle."

Given that Metro needs to save money, and lots of it, I think MetroAccess should pitch in. Regular Metrorail and bus users will almost certainly be paying higher fares, and paratransit riders should do the same.

I also support proposals to tighten eligibility for MetroAccess. Some people are abusing it, using the vans for convenience when they could use regular rail or bus service.

A combination of higher fares and stricter eligibility could achieve most of the $10 million in savings that Metro would like to obtain from MetroAccess.

That said, I think the cuts to paratransit service should stop there. Metro should preserve the trips where and when they exist.

That means the transit agency should kill proposals that would eliminate MetroAccess service beyond what's required by federal law. Those particular steps threaten rides used by well more than 1,200 disabled riders last year.

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