A Metro Access driver (R) helps Denise Rush with her things after being picked up from her workplace in Washington, DC. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

Members of the Montgomery County Council are asking Metro to drop any possible plan that would give Uber or Lyft a share of the region’s paratransit services.

In a letter to Metro General Manager Paul J.Wiedefeld, the council members said the app-based transportation companies have a history of not providing accessible service and Metro shouldn’t reward them with a contract. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is exploring possible partnerships with Uber and Lyft to introduce an alternative –and less costly– option to MetroAccess, a door-to-door service that costs the agency about $50 per ride.

“We find it contradictory that WMATA would seriously consider rewarding (Transportation Network Companies) who have not provided service to meet the needs of all members of the disabled community,” said the letter sent Thursday.  “Until these companies recognize their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and offer comprehensive accessible service, we should not consider them a real option for addressing our paratransit needs.”

The letter is signed by seven of the nine members of the council: Roger Berliner,  Marc Elrich, Tom Hucker, Sidney Katz, George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro and Hans Riemer.

It echoes some of the concerns raised by accessibility advocates who have said that Uber and Lyft have not done enough to meet the needs of people with disabilities, such as those who are blind or use wheelchairs.  They cite a lack of accessible vehicles and question the level of training the services’ drivers receive in dealing with people with special needs.

Metro is one of several agencies across the country eyeing the app-based services as a way to reduce the cost of paratransit services. Some transportation officials say these partnerships could not only potentially save  money for the multimillion-dollar, heavily subsidized services, but would help communities respond to customer demands for same-day, on-demand service that is lacking in the antiquated paratransit platform. 

The Montgomery County lawmakers say that they too support improving the transportation options available to the elderly and people with disabilities. But they prefer an alternative that mirrors Transport D.C., a partnership with the D.C. Taxicab Commission that makes city taxis available to MetroAccess customers for a flat rate of $5 a trip. The city subsidizes the trip, but the cost for service is still lower than MetroAccess. A Metro study gave Transport D.C. high marks as an effective alternative to lowering costs, concluding that the program and other similar options operate at about half the cost of MetroAccess.

“Good models for offering new service already exist in our state and region. The Transport D.C. program has been a cost-effective and popular service for both ambulatory and non-ambulatory MetroAccess users,” the letter says. “Leaders in our disability and transportation community have expressed their strong support for that program, noting that it allows customers to have direct point-to-point service, only requires reservations one hour in advance (instead of 24 hours), and is significantly cheaper to provide than MetroAccess service ($28 per ride instead of $56)”

In the past year Montgomery County has passed a series of transportation reforms including new requirements for taxi fleets to add accessible vehicles.  The county has added 64 accessible taxi licenses and set a goal to have fully accessible vehicles by 2025, the letter said. The county also successfully advocated the Maryland General Assembly to approve a 25-cent surcharge on all Uber and Lyft riders, funds that are used to support the purchase of accessible service.

In the letter, the officials urge Metro to listen to the advocates.

“I urge you to listen closely to their concerns, which include ensuring that all MetroAccess customers will have access to quality service that they can use regardless of their disability; ensuring that this program provides sufficient wheelchair access; and ensuring that MetroAccess drivers are not displaced by changes in service,” the letter said.