MetroAccess Tries To Deliver Despite Financial Woes

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MetroAccess vehicles, which provide para-transit services to disabled D.C. residents (photo by Joshua Davis via Flickr)

(Jim Hilgen -- WAMU, Washington, DC) For nearly 20 years, the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority has offered a program called MetroAccess, a door-to-door ride for people who can’t use other forms of public transportation. The problem the service faces, however, is that it's not cheap. And for what Metro spends on the program, it's still fraught with issues.

"If you are going some place the very beginning of the day, and they get you there early, and the place isn’t open yet, and you’re standing outside waiting," says Anne Timley, a vision-impaired D.C. resident who uses MetroAccess as her main means of getting around. "And that has happened to me a couple times. You know you don’t feel safe just standing out there on the street just waiting for some building to open. "

It’s not a surprising story to Patrick Wojahn, chairman of the 'Access For All' committee at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). He says customer service on MetroAccess has long been a bone of contention. "Missed appointments, having to wait for hours after they schedule an appointment for somebody to actually come and pick them up, for terrible customer service through the paratransit system," he says, ticking off the issues.

MetroAccess was created in 1994, after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act -- which required public transit systems across the country to make improvements to their services for disabled riders. Christian Kent, who heads Metro's Office of Accessibility, acknowledges the service is not perfect, but also notes that MetroAccess was never intended to be a permanent transit solution.

He also throws out some statistics: the service works approximately 92 percent of the time for the 2.4 million customers who utilize it every year, he says.

"I do think that there were many people who felt that if we got to that point in time where bus and rail were fully accessible, paratransit would become much less needed," says Kent. "But that has not proven to be the case."

According to WMATA's 2012 budget, MetroAccess will cost $116 million -- or 8% of the transit authority's operating budget (pdf). Revenue from fare-paying passengers is projected to be $6.3 million. Earlier this year, WMATA raised fares on the service to twice the amount of a comparable Metrorail or bus trip to a maximum of $7, up from the base fare of $2.50 charged in 2010.

Timley is one of those for whom bus and rail are not real options, at least at the moment. She lives in Fairfax County, and the layout of the suburbs can make it hard to get to bus stops. And that is often an issue that lies beyond Metro’s control.

"Once the bus stop is put in, Metro does not take charge of it," says Timley. "The county then has to make sure there’s a sidewalk leading to it, make sure it has the curb cut. As pedestrians, you are also competing with the money needed for new roads and for fixing roads and maintenance of roads."

In an era when transit agencies and local governments are already scrounging for funds, riders hoping for substantial changes to MetroAccess may be cooling their heels for quite a while.