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

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

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.

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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."

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