MetroAccess paratransit service to be scaled back because of rising demand, cost

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; B01

Metro is planning to scale back its MetroAccess service for elderly and disabled people as burgeoning ridership creates an unsustainable financial burden, Metro officials and board members said.

With Metro facing a $189 million gap in its $1.4 billion operating budget this fiscal year, as well as $11 billion in projected capital needs in the coming decade, top Metro officials say the agency cannot afford the mounting costs of paratransit.

MetroAccess is Metro's shared-ride transit service for people who cannot use standard rail or bus service because of age or disability. Transit agencies across the country have reduced such services, said Metro interim general manager Richard Sarles, noting that MetroAccess faces higher demand partly because similar regional services have been cut back.

The proposed changes would curtail service and toughen eligibility requirements. Rates for MetroAccess would rise to twice the comparable base bus fare, and the surcharge on longer trips would increase. If the bus fare increases, there would be a proportional increase in the paratransit fare. In addition, Metro plans to begin more rigorous screening of customers July 1, classifying them not only as "eligible" or "ineligible" but adding a category for those who are "conditionally" eligible.

The changes would bring MetroAccess -- which is more generous than required by the Americans With Disabilities Act -- more closely in line with ADA guidelines.

But customers and advocates for the disabled said the service cuts and fare increases would cause serious hardship for some of Metro's most dependent riders. Moreover, they said, some of the changes could be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

Linda Lupaczyk is blind and depends on MetroAccess to get to her job at Home Depot, where she answers phones. Lupaczyk, who rents a room in Centreville and cannot afford her own residence, said that if MetroAccess raises fares, she will have to cut back on groceries.

Even worse, she said, would be a decision to align MetroAccess service with regular rail and bus routes -- meaning it would run only during rush hour.

"That would cause a major problem for me," said Lupaczyk, who often works from 1 to 10 p.m. "I couldn't get to work."

Huge growth

MetroAccess, which contractor MV Transportation operates for Metro, is projected to provide about 2.4 million trips this fiscal year, compared with 20,000 in 1998, in tandem with significant growth in paratransit nationwide.

This year, MetroAccess ridership surged 14 percent, but bus ridership fell 9 percent and rail dropped 4 percent. Ridership is projected to grow to 3.6 million trips by 2014.

"The increase in demand . . . is why the cost has gone up," said Christian Kent, director of MetroAccess. "It's not that people are using it more, it's that more people are using the service, mainly in the District . . . and two counties in Maryland."

One major cause of the rising demand has been the recession, which has led local jurisdictions and social service agencies to cut back their specialized transportation programs, according to Metro.

For example, from 2003 to 2008, MetroAccess trips increased 77 percent as similar services provided by jurisdictions fell by 20 percent. Over the same period, MetroAccess's share of trips increased from 24 percent to 35 percent.

The cost of MetroAccess service is also growing -- as it is for transit agencies nationwide -- and customers are paying a fraction of those expenses. This year, MetroAccess cost about $38 for a one-way trip, but riders paid $2.50, or about 7 percent of that cost.

And MetroAccess is far more expensive than regular bus or rail service. In the past decade, the surge in use has led to a 320 percent increase in Metro's operating subsidy for MetroAccess, compared with just under 90 percent for bus service and 12 percent for rail.

"If the trends continue, in the fairly near future, MetroAccess will require more subsidy than Metrorail," said David Gunn, who served as Metro's general manager from 1991 to 1994 and recently singled out the cost imbalance in a review of Metro's major challenges that was presented to the board of directors. "Is it worth stopping the subway system so you can have subsidized door-to-door service? That is where you are headed."

A balancing act

In response to concerns from advocates for the disabled, Sarles and Metro board members said they want to strike a balance between containing rising costs that are drawing resources from bus and rail and serving people with special needs.

"There has to be balance between the need to provide this lifeline and ensuring that we are continuing to have an effective bus and rail system and are not asking undue sacrifices from our other riders in order to operate paratransit," said Peter Benjamin, chairman of Metro's board of directors.

Last month, Sarles revised the proposals for MetroAccess cutbacks contained in the original 2011 budget proposal by former general manager John B. Catoe Jr.

The MetroAccess service area extends well beyond the geographic guidelines recommended by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the proposed revisions, MetroAccess would adhere more closely to ADA guidelines and extended service would be cut off for all but a small portion of current riders. As for customers, facing program cuts and fare increases for what some consider a substandard service is unacceptable.

Renee Firtag, 79, a retired schoolteacher and widow who cannot climb steps, sat in white exercise pants and a jacket as she waited in her Damascus living room last week for a MetroAccess driver to arrive. "Sometimes I put on the TV so I'm not bored to death," she said.

Firtag has kidney disease and depends on MetroAccess to take her to and from two or three dialysis treatments each week.

If the cost of MetroAccess increases, "it would be hard for me," said Firtag, who lives on a fixed income. Lately, she said, MetroAccess drivers have arrived hours late or haven't come at all. When she calls the dispatcher, she regularly waits on hold for an hour.

"I get very, very upset. Sometimes I'm ready for tears," she said. "It's a comedy of errors."

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