Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro tries to rein in ridership, costs of MetroAccess -- a generous ride comes to an end

November 3, 2010 - 01:16 PM
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(Photo: WMATA)

On Dec. 5, Metro will be implementing a new fare system for MetroAccess riders in hopes of controlling the paratransit system’s growing costs. The fare hike will be considerable.

As it is now, the disabled riders who are eligible for door-to-door rides in MetroAccess vans usually pay a flat fare of $3 per ride, with supplemental fees tacked on if their starting place or destination is more than three-quarters of a mile from the nearest bus or subway stop. As on the fixed-route system, the new fares will instead be based on distance and time of day, with each MetroAccess ride running twice the amount it would cost to take the fastest ride by train and bus, as determined by Metro’s trip planner. That double-rate fare is the maximum allowed under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The fares will be capped at $7, a ceiling many riders will reach during rush hour, considering the across-the-board hikes made earlier this year.

The rationale behind the big bump? Metro shells out $38 on average for each van ride with MetroAccess, which is run by California-based contractor MV Transportation. And yet riders often don’t have to pay much more than the $3 base fare.

“The service has expanded and ridership has almost doubled over the last few years,” says Metro spokesperson Angela Gates. “It’s growing at a very rapid pace. It’s a very costly service to provide. It’s a big cost to Metro.”

In fiscal year 2006, MetroAccess carried 1.2 million passengers, with a pricetag of $52.3 million. In fiscal year 2010, it was 2.4 million passengers, to the tune of $103.7 million. Ridership has been growing on other paratransit systems for the disabled around the country as well.

In addition to higher fares, Metro has also been looking to pare down the number of MetroAccess riders in the system. Gates says over the years the agency has been more liberal than they legally need to be in granting MetroAccess eligibility. Generally speaking, disability law requires that Metro provide the service to riders who are unable to ride the bus or subway without assistance, such as those with impaired vision or mental illness. But the Metro system overall is accessible to people with many disabilities.

“In the past, anyone who had a disability could apply for the service and an outside group would evaluate the applicant. Everyone with a disability was approved for the service,” says Gates. “Part of the process now is really doing evaluations with each person to see what their needs are to see if they can use [bus and rail].”

Earlier this year, the agency also tightened up the area in which they were willing to pick up and drop off passengers. Until July, much of the D.C. metro area was fair game for MetroAccess rides. But now the pickup and dropoff spots have to be with three-quarters of a mile of a Metrobus or rail stop, per ADA guidelines, unless the rider has been given an exception through a grandfathering clause. Going forward, the service will probably be used much less by people who don’t live near stops and stations, even if they’re eligible.

In other words, the MetroAccess service is getting a lot less generous. Facing a considerable budget shortfall, it seems the agency now would prefer not to give riders much more than disability law mandates.

During the last two MetroAccess subcommittee hearings at WMATA headquarters, riders took the floor to talk passionately about how the fare hikes were going to take a considerable bite out of their income. Many riders are on fixed budgets with little more than a disability check coming their way each month.

“We all are shocked by the double amount we’re going to pay,” said Denise Rush, a long-time rider. “Whenever [the fare] goes up, this place is going to be packed.”

Carolyn Bellamy, of MV Transportation, said they were going to lobby local jurisdictions to put more money in the pot for MetroAccess riders – an unlikely scenario, considering the budget situations around here. “It’s going to be a burden on a lot of people,” she said.

There are also some logistical changes coming with the fare hike. As of Jan 31, MetroAccess riders will no longer be able to use fare cards or the traditional $3 tokens, a change the agency hopes will save time. Riders will be asked to pay ahead of time by credit card or through the service’s EZ-Pay system, though they will also be allowed to pay cash when their ride comes. They’ll be told ahead of time what their fare will be.

At a recent meeting, Patrick Sheehan, a subcommittee member, said he would rather have seen a $5 flat fare put into effect. “I think the flexible fare is going to be a mess,” he said. “There are nine or ten thousand trips a day. I think it’s going to be hard to implement.”

Metro is clearly hoping the added revenue is worth the confusion. For next year the agency is facing a $90 million budget gap, a large chunk of which is the result of the growth in MetroAccess usage. The agency’s hopes for their paratransit system were probably summed up best on a recent notice circulated regarding the fare changes:

“Metro encourages people with disabilities to use its fully accessible Metrobus and Metrorail systems. For a free system orientation, please call 202-962-1100.”

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