Over the years, I’ve touched upon the problem with the MTA’s Access-A-Ride offerings. Essentially, the paratransit service is in response to the unfunded ADA requirements, and the MTA estimates that the door-to-door service costs nearly $66 per ride. It is, in other words, a giant money suck for a cash-strapped agency, but one in which it must participate due to federal law.
Lately, the authority has begun to discuss ways to cut its annual expense — which grew to over $440 million last year. As The Daily News reported a few weeks ago, the MTA may just offer up free MetroCards for those who would otherwise qualify for Access-A-Ride service. The MTA says that just a fifth of all Access-A-Ride users are wheelchair-bound, and the rest should be able to use the bus or subway with the assistance of a caregiving who can ride for free. Allen Cappelli of the MTA Board said of the new plan, “There’s really no downside to it that I can see.”
Disabilities advocates and disabled riders see otherwise. “People don’t use use Access-A-Ride for the fun of it,” Edith Prentiss, a vice president of Disabled in Action, said. Still, as The News notes, agencies in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, have implemented similar plans successfully. It apparently does not run afoul of federal law and could save the MTA upwards of $96 million a year.
Yesterday, The News’ editorial board sounded off on the MTA’s plan. From the new plan, they claim, we can draw “two disturbing conclusions”:
The first is that thousands of people who are listed as eligible for Access-a-Ride service are not too disabled to use the subways and buses. The second is that Access-a-Ride service is so terrible that, given the slightest monetary benefit, even truly disabled people will mount herculean struggles to avoid it.
While MTA staff members say similar plans have cut costs in other cities, Chairman Joe Lhota should think more broadly and should do so in coordination with Mayor Bloomberg, who needs a hand to untangle the taxi mess his administration has created. Together, Lhota and Bloomberg should study moving toward shifting at least some passengers off the Access-a-Ride program’s clunky, unreliable vans and into wheelchair-accessible cabs and livery cars.
Provided it clamped down on eligibility — a most critical element — the MTA might well be able to deliver improved transportation at lower cost, Bloomberg might well be able to remake taxi service under an economically viable structure and the disabled might well be able to get around more conveniently.
The News has no better solution for the various stakeholders other than “work it out.” They want the MTA to work with the city and the Taxi & Limousine Commission to come up with a cost- and ride-sharing scheme that removes the some of the fiscal pressure from the MTA while providing adequate taxi service for the city’s disabled. In an ideal situation in which the city works well with state agencies, such a call may be heeded, but the MTA and New York City do not have the best track record when it comes to such cooperation.
The real eye-opener here though are the costs. Access-A-Ride service costs around $500 million annually, and the cost per rider are astronomical. A door-to-door taxi ride from most points in the city to any other doesn’t cost that much, and we can only imagine what the MTA could do to make its system more accessible if it could invest this money in physical upgrades rather than $60-per-person rides. This is one problem clearly in need of a comprehensive solution.