Photo by dmitridf.

Recently, I shared my perspective on why mobility is important to the disability community,  including to those individuals who rely on ADA complementary paratransit (MetroAccess), and factual information on the purpose and minimum requirements for ADA complementary paratransit service.  Now, it’s time to talk about money.

In response to my posts, a number of commenters recommended cutting back the MetroAccess service area so that it more closely reflects the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) minimum requirements.  I cautioned against this. 

While cutting back the service area could obviously result in operating cost savings through a reduction in the number of rides provided by MetroAccess, people with significant disabilities who rely on paratransit service would be left with no transportation options.

The good news is that there are ways to significantly reduce the operating costs of MetroAccess without cutting back the service area.

In a letter sent to the WMATA Board on April 7, the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) Access for All Advisory committee (AFA) outlined a number of strategies to significantly reduce MetroAccess operating costs while preserving the current service area.  AFA’s recommendations are as follows:

Increase taxi usage for MetroAccess trips by 10 to 20 percent. Transit authorities in cities across the U.S. (including DC, New York, San Francisco, and Houston) are contracting out portions of their paratransit service to taxi service providers.  This is an increasingly common practice due to the cost savings that can be achieved, specifically for those single rider trips that cannot be scheduled with additional riders.  AFA contends that increasing the taxi usage for MetroAccess trips by 10 to 20 percent could save the authority between $3.8 and $7.7 million annually.

Self-insure the MetroAccess fleet. While it would force WMATA to get a firm grasp on hiring, training, supervision, retraining, and preventative maintenance, self-insuring the MetroAccess fleet would also result in significant savings (approximately $2 million annually).

Reduce presumptive eligibility and add conditional eligibility. Once a person’s application for MetroAccess is complete, the ADA regulations allow WMATA 21 days to make a determination regarding that person’s eligibility.  Once the 21-day period passes, the person is given “presumptive eligibility” until the determination is made. 

The AFA letter alludes to the number of paratransit applications that are not being reviewed and decided upon within 21 days and, consequently, the number of applicants who are being given presumptive eligibility as a result.  Reducing the number of people being given presumptive eligibility (especially for those individuals who are later found ineligible) would also result in meaningful cost savings.

If a person is currently found eligible for MetroAccess, they are found unconditionally eligible, which allows MetroAccess use for all trips.  The ADA allows for conditional eligibility, which applies only to certain trips which the individual’s disability prevents making using the fixed-route system. Changing to conditional eligibility could result in savings of between $3 and $5 million annually.

Increase MetroAccess fares. According to ADA regulations, the MetroAccess fare for the MetroAccess service area within ¾-mile of the fixed route cannot exceed twice the amount of the fixed route fare.  The service area beyond ¾-mile does not fall under this specific regulation, and WMATA has proposed increasing them up to 300-400%.

However, fares outside the ¾-mile beyond the fixed route should not be increased to the point where they become cost-prohibitive for most riders, as would be the case if they were increased by 300 to 400 percent.  A more modest increase would be appropriate.

In addition to AFA’s recommendations, there are a couple of operational decisions that WMATA could make that would also increase the cost-effectiveness of MetroAccess.

Group riders together. Just as is the case with the fixed route, the more people you have on a vehicle, the more cost-effective the service.  Thus, from an operational perspective, one of the best ways to get paratransit costs down is to combine more trips on a single vehicle.  Riders going in the same direction at the same time would ride together.

Most MetroAccess rides are call-ins and the ride times may vary somewhat.  An alternative is to encourage regular riders to request and accept subscription service.  Subscription service is intended for regularly scheduled trips, such as daily trips to work, regularly scheduled trips to adult day programs or senior centers, etc. 

MetroAccess could choose to offer subscription trips at times that enable rides to be grouped on the same vehicle.  These subscription trips would be predictable, using the same route, same driver, and same pickup locations each day, with pickup and drop-off times based on well thought-out scheduling. 

Of course, MetroAccess already groups multiple riders together on the same vehicle.  However, WMATA can do even more to increase MetroAccess efficiency through increased subscription service and grouped trips.  At the same time, MetroAccess should focus taxi usage on trips that cannot be grouped or “sandwiched” between groups on MetroAccess vehicles.

Create zones and require transfers. Can you imagine a one-seat transit ride from Fairfax City to Rockville?  On the fixed route, you would need to take the CUE bus to the Vienna Metro station, transfer to the Orange Line, then transfer to the red line at Metro Center to Rockville.  On MetroAccess, no transfer is required.  Yet ADA complementary paratransit service is intended to complement (i.e., be comparable to) the fixed route service.

Much like carpooling, paratransit trips are easier to group together when they are relatively short trips.  If you wanted to carpool from Arlington to DC, it probably wouldn’t be difficult to find a carpooling opportunity (though, of course, transit would probably still be a better option!).  However, if you wanted to carpool from Arlington to College Park or Arlington to Frederick, it might be more difficult to find a carpooling opportunity.

A strategy for creating shorter paratransit trips that are easier to group together is to create zones and only promise one-seat rides within zones.  The original DC diamond (DC and Arlington) could be one zone. The rest of the service area in Virginia could be another zone.  And due to the large service area in Maryland, it might be necessary to somehow divide Prince George’s County and Montgomery County into two additional zones.  MetroAccess riders traveling to and from zones outside the diamond might have to transfer from one MetroAccess vehicle to another at safe, lighted locations.

The fare structure would be kept as simple as possible, perhaps with just two fare levels. With a zone system, reservations could remain a centralized function; however, scheduling would occur by zone and would require communication between scheduling offices.

In addition to allowing for more grouped trips, this type of zone system would have additional operational benefits.  It would be much easier for drivers to learn one zone than it currently is for them to learn the entire service area of DC, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Alexandria, City of Falls Church, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County.  This would make it easier for paratransit drivers to do their jobs and to feel truly successful, increasing on-time performance and morale while decreasing staff turnover. 

Of these ideas, the zone system would likely be the most controversial among the disability community and is not presently endorsed by AFA.  However, it certainly appears to be less harmful than cutting back the service area to ¾-mile around the fixed route.  And it could significantly improve operations and the cost-effectiveness of the service.

The closing paragraph of the AFA’s April 7th letter to the WMATA Board states:

MetroAccess costs should be put in context of the benefits of helping the region’s most vulnerable populations. Growth in the number of MetroAccess trips means more people with disabilities are working, getting medical care, and experiencing freedom and mobility they would otherwise not have.

WMATA can save the same amount of money (or perhaps more) on MetroAccess through operational improvements than they could by cutting back the service area to the minimum requirement of ¾-mile around the fixed route. Cutting back the service area to the minimum requirement of ¾ mile around the fixed route would leave people with disabilities with no transportation options. 

Therefore, the WMATA Board should give serious consideration to the recommendations of AFA and to the other suggestions offered by transit planners and the disability community that will best preserve mobility for people with disabilities while reducing paratransit costs.  Doing so will result in a win-win for WMATA, the disability community, and the Washington metropolitan region.

Penny Everline has served on transportation advisory groups at the local, regional, and national levels including the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board Transportation Committee, the Transportation Planning Board’s Access for All Advisory Committee, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) National Work Group.  She recently left her job with Easter Seals Project ACTION, a national training and technical assistance center funded through the Federal Transit Administration, to focus on advocacy work at the local/regional level.  She holds an MSW degree and teaches at George Mason University.