Kathy Gosselin’s travels got a bit easier last year when she was introduced to Transport DC, a program that allowed her to take a cab anywhere in the city for $5. Gosselin, who is blind and often finds herself asking strangers for help when riding the bus or train, used the taxi deal almost weekly to get to her bible study fellowship in Northeast and her volunteer job at the Smithsonian.
Starting Friday, she will need to find another way to get around.
The District is scaling back the program that many of the city’s elderly and disabled residents have come to love, and depend on. With about 16,200 monthly trips, Transport DC has far exceeded ridership projections— and its annual budget. City officials informed riders last week that the exponential growth has “endangered the fiscal viability of the program” and moving forward it will only be available for medical and work-related trips.
Forget night trips, too. The now-24/7 on-demand service will be cut back to trips between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. Those restrictions, some advocates and users say, are a setback for many residents who rely on Transport DC for daily transportation to go grocery shopping, visit friends and go to church.
“Why can’t they say that we can only have a few trips a month? I’ll completely agree with that. But they just decided to cut the service, leaving us with no choice,” said Gosselin, who lives in Adams Morgan.
“I am very angry about it,” she said. “They shouldn’t take the service from people who have come to rely on it and they didn’t give us much notice.”
City officials say the changes are not cuts, but a return to what was the program’s original intent. When it launched as a pilot in October 2014, Transport DC was to provide rides related to medical appointments. 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, who otherwise use MetroAccess, the shared-ride, door-to-door service that Metro provides to the elderly and people with disabilities.
Transport DC was introduced as an alternative to the much more expensive MetroAccess, and quickly became a preferred choice for many customers in part because it allowed them to access a ride within an hour of booking. MetroAccess trips must be booked 24 hours in advance. The service also has a wider pick-up window and riders can spend hours on the road making multiple stops to pick up other customers, often out of their way, before getting to their destination.
In the last fiscal year, MetroAccess trips dropped by 9,100 while Transport DC grew by 47,000 trips, city officials said in a letter to advocates last December. This trend helps Metro’s goal of lowering the cost of its paratransit service, which is heavily subsidized and costs the agency about $121 million a year. MetroAccess trips cost about $50 each, more than twice the cost of a Transport DC trip.
Metro has been a big cheerleader of Transport D.C., giving it high marks as an effective alternative to MetroAccess, and even quietly protesting changes to the program.
“Your voices matter,” Christian Kent, assistant general manager for Metro’s Access Services department told Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee on Monday, encouraging the panel to write a letter of support for keeping the expanded transportation options.
“The District has been proud of the service. I think they are happy that it worked. They want to make sure that they have the budget to keep it going.” he said. “I see only positives in everyone making the District aware of how beneficial it is.”
Ask anyone in the city why Transport DC is downsizing, and the answer is simple: the program has been a victim of its own success.
The program went from 4,000 average monthly trips last fiscal year to 16,200 this year. The city this summer allocated an additional $1.2 million to this year’s budget of $1.1 million as a way to continue to meet the growing demand, officials say. And next year’s budget of $4 million is more than double this year’s.
The city has no choice but to streamline the program to finish the rest of the fiscal year, and to make sure that the service is available for the most essential needs, said Brenda Donald, deputy mayor for health and human services.
“We get that change is hard for everybody, but it is the responsibility of the government to fill in when critical services are needed and making sure that people are able to get to their medical appointment is a top priority and that will not be cut back,” Donald said, noting that the elderly and residents with disabilities have MetroAccess and other resources available through other city agencies. Overall, she said, the city spends about $70 million in transportation services for those populations.
“If those options really don’t meet the need of people who need them– that’s what we need to figure out and that’s what we are committed to doing,” she said.
It is still unclear if Transport DC will remain restricted to medical appointments when the new fiscal year starts in October. Neville Waters, a spokesman for the program, said only that the agency is exploring opportunities to expand beyond its original scope. Riders and advocates, meanwhile, question the city’s stance given the extra funding assigned to the program.
“The funding issue irks me because with all those parking tickets (the city) gives they can fund anything they wanted– a spaceship if they wanted to,” said Phillippa Mezile, a D.C. resident and member of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, a panel that has been critical of the city’s decision to scale back the program.
In analyzing the rides, the city found the vast majority of trips taken were for other than medical purposes, such as to restaurants, shopping and visiting friends, according to a spokesman with the D.C. Department of For-Hire Services, which manages the program.
Those aren’t necessarily essential trips, some city officials said.
But for Gosselin, adjusting to a life without Transport DC for her regular travels would mean more complicated bus trips, more dependence on strangers to help her, and more strain on her pocket. MetroAccess costs her as much as $7 a trip and taking a cab to her church would be $25.
“I will often be late for appointments if I use MetroAccess. Or, I might have to leave a meeting early,” said Gosselin. “And the cab is much more expensive. Some trips are $15, and some are $25. Much more than the $5 that Transport DC charges.”
Lolita Wood, who uses a wheelchair and alternates between MetroAccess and Transport DC to get around, said she too worries about the future without the option to call a cab through Transport DC to go buy her groceries.
“It’s unfair that they tried out something new— something that was good for everybody, and now they are taking it away,” she said from her Southeast D.C. home Wednesday as she waited for a Transport DC cab to pick her up and take her to the Walmart near Fort Totten where she shops for groceries. “This works for a lot of people.”