The District is again scaling back a transportation program that many of the city's elderly and disabled residents have come to depend on. The reason: It has grown too fast and become too popular, outgrowing its original purpose and budget.
Transport DC, which allows qualifying residents to take a cab anywhere in the city for any purpose for $5, is now restricted to trips for medical and employment needs.
The changes affect as many as 14,000 city residents who can't or have difficulty using Metro or the bus to get around, and have relied on Transport DC for outings such as grocery shopping, attending classes and going to church.
Transport DC started three years ago as a pilot program to take residents to dialysis appointments. But its use and popularity have grown, and D.C. officials say the cutbacks are necessary to stay within the program's $4.1 million budget.
In the past year, an average of about 14,500 trips were made each month through the program, with more than 17,000 in June, far exceeding ridership projections.
Transport DC users have experienced several service reductions since last year — which officials blamed on budget constraints. Advocates and users say the latest cuts — announced to continue for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 — are unjustified.
The program's budget is about $200,000 higher than last year's, but officials say that the program's exponential growth is the result of its use expanding beyond those it was initially meant to serve.
"We have to scale back the program so that we can preserve it for the most vulnerable," said Ernest Chrappah, director of the city's Department of For-Hire Vehicles, which oversees Transport DC.
"I empathize. I understand. I feel for these people," Chrappah said. "What is also real is the budget. We cannot spend money we don't have."
For riders, that means finding other ways to get around. Of the users, about 2,500 use the service frequently; some take as many as 20 trips a week, according to the Department of For-Hire Vehicles. The city subsidy per trip is $23.
Transport DC launched in October 2014 with a budget of about $1 million. The city expanded it in May 2015 to cover trips for any purpose within the District. That option opened up all kinds of opportunities for people with special needs, including those who would otherwise use MetroAccess, the shared-ride, door-to-door paratransit service that Metro provides for the elderly and people with disabilities.
The program also was an opportunity for the city to save on expensive paratransit service.
Officials say the District is paying about 44 percent less per trip than it would pay Metro for providing the same trips through MetroAccess. Transport DC also has helped reduce the city's MetroAccess subsidy by 100,000 trips — or about $5 million.
Advocates cite these figures as reason to continue to allow residents to use the Transport DC program for all city travel.
"It was always intended to take trips off MetroAccess," said Heidi Case, an advocate and user of Transport DC. "They think that if these people can't use Transport DC they have the MetroAccess option. That costs more — twice as much."
MetroAccess trips cost users twice the amount of what the fare would be on the fastest comparable trip if the same trip were taken on Metro or Metrobus, up to a maximum of $6.50.
Transport DC became a preferred alternative to MetroAccess, in part because it allows customers to access a ride within an hour of booking; MetroAccess trips must be booked 24 hours in advance. MetroAccess also has a wider pickup window and customers can spend hours on the road while the van makes multiple stops to pick up other passengers, often going far out of a traveler's way before reaching their destination.
Last year, D.C. officials announced plans to implement trip restrictions for Transport DC after the program reached more than 16,200 monthly trips, exceeding ridership projections — and its budget. Officials informed riders that the explosive growth had "endangered the fiscal viability of the program" and changes were necessary.
Since then, customers have been allowed to use the service for any kind of trips from the 1st through 15th of each month; for the second half of the month, rides are restricted to medical and employment needs.
Then this summer, the Department of For-Hire Vehicles issued a letter alerting users that the program would need to be cut back until the end of the fiscal year in September. Trips could only be used for work and medical appointments.
Riders and the two taxi companies that provide the service — D.C. Yellow Cab and Transco — assumed the restriction would be lifted at the beginning of the new fiscal year. And the department's website suggested no policy changes were expected as of Oct. 1.
"It is anticipated that Transport DC will resume offering eligible customers transportation to and from any location in the District with no restrictions during the first half of each month ending on the 15th of the month," a message on the website said.
But on Oct. 3, the agency alerted the taxi companies that the trip restrictions would continue indefinitely. That left riders stranded, Case said. For example, one customer who had taken the taxi service to classes in the morning couldn't take the service back home.
"We don't understand these rash decisions that have so much impact on the disabled and elderly community," said Roy Spooner, general manager of D.C. Yellow Cab.
For the city's declining taxi industry, the program has provided a new source of business as it struggles to compete with ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. About 97 percent of taxi business in the District comes from street hails; the remaining is through dispatched calls. About 2.5 percent of those calls are for Transport DC service, according to the Department of For-Hire Vehicles.
City officials insist the changes are not cuts, but a return to the program's original intent.Advocates question why the city isn't allocating the MetroAccess savings to the program.
Chrappah said it's not simply a matter of shifting the savings. And even with the service cuts in the past year, ridership grew by 45 percent.
In an Oct. 4 letter to the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) urged the city to reinstate the regular service immediately, noting that the program isn't facing any spending pressures since the fiscal year just started.
"This extension of the reduction in service, without adequate notice to either users or providers has severely inconvenienced some of the District's most vulnerable citizens," wrote McDuffie, who has oversight of the Department of For-Hire Vehicles.
"If funding is an issue, I would look favorably upon a reprogramming request from [the Department of For-Hire Vehicles] in order to continue to provide this much needed service, and would urge my Council colleagues to so the same," McDuffie said.
There is no indication that the Department of For-Hire Vehicles plans to revisit its decision. Chrappah said the department is exploring ideas such as the possibility of shared rides to reduce costs.
"For now, it should be abundantly clear that we are preserving the program for the most vulnerable," he said.