WMATA’s MetroAccess paratransit service has become too expensive for both its clients and the governments that fund it, and has suffered from some serious problems with its service. Using more taxis to transport persons with disabilities could decrease costs and improve service quality.
People with certain disabilities qualify for Metro Access service. Riders pay twice the quickest fixed-route transit fare, up to a maximum of $7 per ride. But that doesn’t cover the cost of a trip. To cover the rest, the local jurisdiction pays WMATA $45 for each trip.
WMATA will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) on March 31 for new paratransit operators. But if the RFP follows the original proposal, it will make a big mistake: It would restrict taxis to serve no more than 5% of paratransit trips.
MetroAccess is saddled with a poor customer service record. At a town hall meeting this past October, MetroAccess customers complained about poor treatment by drivers and call dispatchers, poor routing, long waits for pick up and drop off, and vehicle breakdowns. On a couple of occasions, clients of Iona Senior Services’ Alzheimer’s Day Program were dropped off at the wrong location, and it took hours to locate them. WMATA can do better than this, and taxis could help.
MetroAccess head Christian Kent has crafted a plan to fix the quality of MetroAccess service. Instead of having one vendor bid on the whole package of services, as in the previous contract, the RFP lets vendors bid separately to run the call center, the fleet services, and quality assurance.
Most jurisdictions of similar size do the same. Experts I spoke to feel that this is the best approach, especially having a different vendor handle quality assurance from the one(s) actually running the service.
But one piece of the plan does not make sense: decreasing taxi use from 20%, as specified in the old contract, to only 5%.
Research (cited at bottom) is clear that taxi paratransit services can be less costly than standard ADA paratransit:
- In 2005, Arlington County’s taxi paratransit cost $20.50 per trip, versus $35 for WMATA.
- San Francisco’s taxi paratransit costs $15-$18, versus $40 for Muni paratransit.
- Houston’s ADA taxi service per hour is $32.10, versus $42.65 for paratransit van service.
- 50% of jurisdictions surveyed reported taxis saved money for transit agencies.
Beyond cost savings, there are other advantages. The taxi system has more flexibility. Taxis are there when you need them, can handle a trip without needing to know the day ahead of time, often come quickly, and force riders to wait less. They provide a safety net for peak service times, and fill in gaps in coverage. And customers like the direct, exclusive ride.
There are also challenges with using taxis. Some try to defraud the transit service. It’s hard to monitor it, and drivers don’t have as much training as the van services. Christian Kent cites these as reasons to decrease the amount of taxi use in the system.
Nevertheless, Arlington paratransit manager Steve Yaffe makes a strong case for taxi use. His system uses taxis to provide 50% of its paratransit service. He has demonstrated that the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
I recognize the difficulty in finding taxi vendors with sufficient internal controls and oversight over training, maintenance and accounting. Another difficulty with using taxis for this type of service is the dearth of jurisdictional reciprocity privileges for taxis being used to transport people with disabilities. However, new business models are being developed and have been implemented elsewhere to get around these obstacles and provide the necessary level of accountability and service oversight. The Metro Access RFP should not preclude the flexibility to increase future levels of taxi participation.
DC disability advocates testified at a January hearing on taxi service, chaired by Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), about the importance of providing more wheelchair-accessible taxis and drivers with training to serve those with disabilities. When I talked to Cheh about the possibility of the MetroAccess RFP reducing the use of taxis, she acknowledged that this appears to move in the wrong direction.
Instead of defining a percentage of taxi use for the system, WMATA should include specific quality standards for taxis. This will give all the jurisdictions the flexibility to improve quality, so that taxis can provide services for Metro Access users. This could lead to lower costs and better quality. 22 senior service providers in the District signed off on this recommendation. We hope Christian Kent listens.
Arndt, J. & Cherrington, L. (2007). The Role of Private-For-Hire Vehicles In Transit In Texas. Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.
Burkhardt, J. (2010). Potential Cost Savings from taxi paratransit programs. Institute of Transport Studies (Monash). Social Research in Transport Clearinghouse.
Burkhardt, J., Doherty, J., Rubino, J., Westat, & Yum, J. (2008). A Survey On The Use of Taxis in Paratransit Programs. Easter Seals Project Action. Retrieved from www.projectaction.org
Chapman, Koffman, Pfeiffer, & Weiner (2010). Funding the Public Transportation Needs of an Aging Population. American Public Transportation Association.