MetroAccess Staff Turnover Costly, Study Finds

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Metro's service for the disabled has improved significantly but high turnover among drivers -- 111 percent -- and other staff workers is costing Metro more money and adversely affecting riders, according to a report to be released today.

The study, to be presented to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, is the most in-depth look at the troubled MetroAccess service since MV Transportation began running it two years ago. Across the region, 22,000 disabled people who are physically unable to take the subway or a regular bus depend on the door-to-door rides. Almost 70 percent of riders live in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. They tend to be female, African American, older than 60 and poor, surveys show.

MetroAccess is Metro's fastest-growing service, with ridership increasing 16 percent since last year. It is also the most expensive, costing taxpayers $68.2 million this fiscal year. Long the subject of rider complaints, MetroAccess hired MV Transportation in 2006 under a four-year, $204 million deal. But the transition was poorly managed. Riders were stranded. Drivers got lost, took circuitous routes or failed to show up. Complaints overwhelmed Metro.

Since then, on-time performance has improved, more workers have been hired to book, schedule and dispatch trips, and the transit agency has invested "a significant amount of funding and resources," according to the 128-page independent review by TranSystems Corp. and the KFH Group.

MV was the low bidder for the contract, but Metro has spent more than $4 million on service improvements, officials said.

At other transit agencies, MV has also been the low bidder, but the contract "ends up being even more expensive since MV is not able to deliver what they promised within their proposed budget," according to Wendy Klancher, a senior transportation planner for the planning board.

In particular, the report says MV's contract was "unusual." Unlike other paratransit contracts in major cities, MV acts as a broker and also operates more than 60 percent of the service. "That means MV is responsible for monitoring its own service and has the entire responsibility for reservations, scheduling and dispatching functions," the report says. In New York, Denver and Seattle, for example, one company handles reservations, scheduling and dispatch while other contractors provide the rides, which avoids conflicts of interest in scheduling.

Tim Lovain, who heads the board's task force that oversaw the review, said he found the MV contract worrisome. "MetroAccess should use a separate company for the call center and divide up the trips among more companies," he said. "Competition can cure a lot of ills."

Metro spokeswoman Angela J. Gates said in an e-mail: "We agree with the consultant's finding that we may need a different business model now that MetroAccess has grown to such a large size. We will be reviewing alternate business models in preparation for the next time the service is put out to bid."

The report also singles out high turnover among employees who provide the backbone of the service. Turnover among those who book rider trips is 121 percent; turnover for drivers is 111 percent, more than four times the industry average. Of the 800 drivers, almost 60 percent had experience of one year or less, meaning "it is very likely that [Metro] is paying for more vehicle hours of service than would be needed with a more stable, experienced workforce," the study found.

The main reason for high turnover was low wages and "very limited" benefits. Starting pay for drivers is $11.75 an hour; after six months, the company covers 5 to 10 percent of total family health care costs, the report says.

"We are working in partnership with Metro to give even more realistic expectations of what each MetroAccess job entails," MV spokeswoman Nikki Frenney said. "This is a technically challenging and fast-paced environment where everyone from drivers to schedulers are expected to be compassionate, have adequate computer skills and be extremely flexible."

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