By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:03 PM
Nearly 30,000 disabled Washington area residents will face significantly higher fares starting this month on the MetroAccess paratransit service - a cause of concern among advocates for the disabled.
Metro announced Friday that the price of travel on MetroAccess will increase Feb. 27 to twice the fare for the fastest comparable trip using the regular bus and rail network, up to a maximum one-way fare of $7. The new fare will be based on the time and distance a customer travels.
Currently, trips cost $3 one way within three-quarters of a mile of Metro's bus and rail system. Metro has estimated that the average MetroAccess one-way trip will be $5 once the increase takes place, Metro spokeswoman Angela Gates said.
As of last summer, Metro stopped providing paratransit service to almost all travelers outside the Americans With Disabilities Act-required service area, the three-quarter-mile zone. About 2,200 customers who used the service for some 58,000 trips in 2010 will be allowed to continue the service, Gates said. However, they will pay more.
Advocates said some riders might not be able to afford longer commutes to work.
"The financial burden on almost everyone will be significant" but particularly on those with modest or low incomes, said Doris Ray, director of advocacy and outreach at the Endependence Center of Northern Virginia.
Ann Pimley, a member of the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board, which opposed the fare increase, said she is curtailing her trips from her home in Centreville to downtown - which will cost $7 - and is relying more often on relatives for rides.
"Already I have been trying to have family members drive me places if they possibly can to save me money," said Pimley, who is blind. "How many people with disabilities can afford a $14 round trip?"
Facing mounting budget deficits, Metro's board of directors last year voted to increase MetroAccess fares while cutting back the costly service, which was more generous than required by the ADA.
Use of the service surged 14 percent last year to 2.1 million trips and is projected to increase to 3.6 million trips by 2014.
Officials said that constitutes a significant financial drain on Metro because each one-way trip costs about $40, according to Metro data.
Advocates for the disabled worry that customers will be forced to move closer to the Metro system, likely at a higher cost.
Another concern is whether Metro will execute the more complex fare calculations.
Ray recalled previous snags in calculating fare for the service, which began in 1994. "We are all anxious to see how the fare increase is going to be implemented," she said.
Metro originally planned to implement the fare increase last fall but delayed it for several months as it upgraded computer software systems in order to calculate the new fares, Gates said.
This week, Metro stopped accepting tokens and Farecards as payment from MetroAccess riders, requiring instead that they use cash or a MetroAccess EZ-Pay account.
Demand for MetroAccess has increased as similar regional services have cut back operations - a rise that some contend is not sustainable.
MetroAccess expenditures were $98.6 million in fiscal 2010. Metro has proposed a budget of $119 million for expenditures for the service in 2012 and projects $6.3 million in revenue during that same period.
Advocates contend that transportation is a civil right. "Any other organization that follows the ADA has to pay for it," Pimley said. "I get tired of always hearing how much it costs" Metro.