Steve Polkinghorn's MetroAccess ride home finally arrives. The trip that used to take 90 minutes now often takes more than two hours. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Users of Metro’s service for the elderly and people with disabilities say they have recently endured hours-long waits for rides, spent entire afternoons in vans traveling nonsensical routes and watched as fellow riders soiled themselves on unreasonably long trips.

The routes that MetroAccess drivers must follow are not only unnecessarily long, but sometimes also take them in the opposite directions from their destinations, say customers, including some who are blind, medically fragile or use wheelchairs. One former customer said her doctor recommended she stop using the service to get to her lung cancer treatments because it was too stressful.

For MetroAccess’s 43,000 registered customers, the problems began last September with a sudden, seven-point drop in on-time performance. The share of excessively late trips nearly tripled from the month before. Metro officials have blamed soaring numbers of late and missed trips on a driver shortage.

“I feel like because I have a disability, I’m being treated like less than everyone else,” said Shannon Minnick, 46, who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair.

Minnick, of Silver Spring, said she recently missed a doctor’s appointment after spending more than 2½ hours in a MetroAccess van for what is typically a 25-minute ride. On another recent trip, a driver taking her home from Rockville first picked up someone in Kensington, five minutes from her home, and then drove another passenger to north Silver Spring before heading south again to drop her off.

Nancy Childress, 63, of West Springfield, Va., recalled how one MetroAccess trip took so long this winter that another passenger soiled herself after being in the van for two to three hours.

“She couldn’t help it,” said Childress, who has trouble walking and balancing from being hit by a car two decades ago.

The driver disinfected the van, and they went on their way, Childress said.

Heidi Case, a disability advocate, said she knew a woman who almost called the police, frantic that she hadn’t heard from her severely disabled daughter who had been stuck in a van for more than two hours.

Those are the kinds of “disastrous things that are happening,” Case said. “It is a significant quality-of-life change.”

On-time performance remains near its lowest level since at least mid-2013. In April, 88 percent of customers were picked up on time — better than the 83 percent in the fall but still below Metro’s minimum target of 92 percent.

By April, the number of trips deemed “excessively late” — more than 20 minutes past the half-hour pickup window — had nearly doubled since last summer, from about 2,400 a month to 4,700. Incidents in which the driver never showed also doubled to almost 1,500 in April.

The number of botched and excessively late trips make up a relatively small portion — about 3 to 4 percent — of MetroAccess’s overall service. But with about 8,000 trips a day, the percentages mask thousands of missed appointments, late arrivals at work and frustrated customers who rely on the service to live independently.

While high driver turnover has been a problem in the paratransit industry for decades, Metro officials say the growth in services such as Uber and Lyft has further cut into the driver pool. The shortage worsened just as ridership was picking up from the summer lull, Metro officials said, even though the agency’s own data shows usage actually dropped by 9,500 passengers between August and October.

Christian Kent, Metro’s assistant general manager for access services, said contractors were down about 100 drivers in September, leaving the companies 10 percent short of the 1,000 needed for full service. As the driver shortage increased throughout the fall, Kent said, on-time performance couldn’t recover, even in months when ridership dropped.

“The contractors experienced a more competitive driver market than they have had to deal with in the past, and the number of people who applied for jobs with MetroAccess was lower than we’ve seen in the past,” Kent said.

Transit agencies are required to provide paratransit service under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and MetroAccess is the fifth-largest such program in the country. Usage has more than doubled in the past 14 years, from just under a million trips in 2003 to more than 2 million trips. It is the agency’s fastest-growing and most expensive service.

Metro spends about $100 million annually to provide Metro­Access service via five contractors. The transit agency subsidizes 92 percent of the costs, with the rest covered by fare revenue.

Rides cost two times the equivalent bus or rail fare, with a maximum $6.50, for a trip that costs the agency an average of $50.

Customers must make a reservation a day in advance and are given a 30-minute pickup window. As a ride-sharing service, there are typically multiple passengers per van.

Many of those who rely on MetroAccess cannot easily navigate Metro or afford taxis or ride-hailing services.

Kent said a trip is considered late if it is even one minute outside the 30-minute pickup window.

Just because on-time performance dropped, he said, that doesn’t mean “that suddenly every trip is egregiously late.”

Contributing to the problem are the computer-generated routes that drivers are required to follow — even if they don’t make sense in terms of geography or time.

Documents obtained through a public records request show that MetroAccess contractors began “dropping” routes at a precipitous clip last August, meaning the companies didn’t have enough drivers to accept all the trips that the computer assigned them.

During some months last fall, as many as 1,337 trips had to be reassigned among available drivers.

Fewer drivers means those on hand must cover larger areas and have more trips tacked on to their routes, Kent said. Accommodating these “add-on” trips causes the circuitous routes that customers have complained about.

Steve Polkinghorn, of Burke, Va., said his commute home from his job in Arlington County used to rarely exceed 90 minutes. Now it can take more than two hours. That’s because the drivers who pick him up at his Crystal City office often head into the District to pick up another passenger before turning around and slogging through traffic back to Northern Virginia to take him home.

“Why am I driving due north when I live due south?” said Polkinghorn, who has multiple sclerosis.

Cindy LaBon, who is blind, said out-of-the-way routes have left her and her guide dog stuck in a van up to three hours.

In the fall, LaBon said, a fellow passenger who was mentally disabled began crying after the driver passed her street to drop off someone else miles way. The woman had already been in the van for three hours on a trip from Lanham to Silver Spring.

Two weeks ago, LaBon said, she spent more than two hours trying to get from Burtonsville to Gaithersburg — both in Montgomery County — in a van that first took her to Northwest Washington.

“They don’t know geography,” LaBon, 68, said of whoever sets the drivers’ routes. “They don’t even put trips [together] going in the same direction.”

While the computer suggests three options, staff members in the scheduling center can override the software, Kent said.

“On days when we have surging ridership and depleted drivers to route, sometimes the dispatchers don’t have an ideal choice coming out of the computer,” Kent said. “We are very much aware of the issue.”

Metro has fined the three companies that provide drivers — Transdev, First Transit and Diamond Transportation — almost $1 million each in contract “damages” since the fall.

But Metro officials say they’ve also cut the companies a financial break to help them hire more drivers. The agency has greatly reduced future financial penalties, in some cases by 90 percent, for six months, according to Metro. Transdev also has been allowed to use temporary drivers, a Metro spokeswoman said. And the agency recently agreed to pay the contractors “slightly” more so they could raise wages.

“It’s very difficult for them to put out the extra cash to pay drivers at a higher wage scale if, simultaneously, we’re taking the money back from them in damages,” Kent said.

Transdev, the company responsible for half of MetroAccess rides, blamed the sudden downturn on the difficulty of recruiting drivers, “given the current robust labor force and low unemployment rate.” The company said it had been fully staffed a year before the performance drop, but suddenly attrition rose and driver training classes shrank. Meanwhile, ridership increased in the fall just as back-to-school-and-work traffic jumped.

First Transit, which is responsible for 35 percent of Metro­Access trips, said it faces the same problems attracting drivers. By fall, the company was short 35 to 50 drivers, spokesman Jay Brock said last month, and the workforce hadn’t fully recovered. Brock said the company is participating in job fairs, increasing its marketing and undertaking grass-roots efforts to attract new hires.

“We’re screening, interviewing, taking [applicants] through our background checks and trying to get them on the road and behind the wheel,” Brock said.

John Gray, acting project manager at MV Transportation, which manages the MetroAccess call center, directed reporters’ questions to Metro.

Kate Walden, a spokeswoman for Diamond Transportation, which provides 15 percent of MetroAccess trips, said driver shortages are occurring nationwide. She said the company is now “nearly fully staffed” for MetroAccess and is “aggressively recruiting to ensure we have a full complement of drivers this summer.”

A union representing paratransit drivers says Metro is letting contractors off the hook for poor service. A key problem, they say, remains the “poverty wages” drivers receive. The companies recently agreed to increase wages to at least $15 an hour, union officials said. For example, Transdev drivers who were making $13.85 an hour saw their wages increased to $16 an hour.

“You cannot operate a public service with a sweatshop employment model,” said Todd Brogan, a union organizer with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764 at a recent demonstration urging Metro to stop using contractors for paratransit.

Kent said training classes are now full and efforts continue to hire more drivers to meet the growing demand. The agency said late Friday that they were fully staffed. Metro also recently began receiving 207 new vans to replace older ones and expand the fleet by 25 vehicles.

The five-year MetroAccess contract expires in June 2018, and the agency is putting the new one out for bid. The agency also is exploring ways to partner with Uber, Lyft and other transportation services to provide same-day paratransit service at a fraction of the cost.

Kent said MetroAccess will improve, even as the number of people needing it continues to grow.

“There’s really not a choice,” Kent said. “MetroAccess is our responsibility to our customers with disabilities. We must provide it under the ADA, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.