Archive for Paratransit
It’s been a few years since the MTA’s Access-A-Ride costs have made headlines, but two reports published this week have brought the issue back to the forefront of the discussion over transit offerings in New York City. Both the Citizens Budget Commission and the NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center have put forward proposals that could save the MTA over $100 million a year in Access-A-Ride costs, and while each report is worth consideration, they’re silent on the most important fix — investing in the accessibility of the New York City subway system.
Let’s start with the basics: The MTA currently spends around $470 million annually on Access-A-Ride, and trips cost on average $71. The fare is equal to a $2.75 MetroCard swipe so someone — largely subway riders and drivers along with a mix of tax dollars — supports this expensive program. Meanwhile, with out population rapidly aging, the MTA expects to spend over $620 million on paratransit in 2020 with the per-ride cost reaching nearly $80. With the MTA’s razor-thin budget margins, significant savings on paratransit can improve the program’s efficiency while averting future MTA budget crises.
The CBC’s report [pdf] is a straightforward presentation of fairly obvious policy solutions. The MTA, the CBC notes, uses wheelchair-accessible vehicles even in situations where the paratransit riders are ambulatory. The agency should better improve dispatching and refine its services offerings to align needs with vehicles while reducing costs. Better contracting practices, a common refrain for anything MTA, is part of the solution while the CBC also recommends “discourag[ing] excess use of paratransit by charging a higher fare” and calls for a better funding mix.
The Rudin Center’s report [pdf] leans on technology and ride-hailing apps in particular to improve service offerings. Both reports call upon transit agencies to work with Uber, Lyft and other web-based car hailing services to shift some paratransit trips to lower cost providers (though these companies’ fleets are far from sufficiently accessible for many riders). Both reports are sympathetic to the unfunded nature of the ADA mandate that transit agencies provide paratransit services. And both reports recognize how costs are going to begin to climb as the Baby Boomer generation starts to age.
Yet, I wanted to hear more about a potential other solution: Transit agencies, and the MTA in particular, should make more of an effort to ensure their systems are fully accessible. The MTA is working to fulfill a pledge to make 100 Key Stations accessible by the end of 2020, but our transit agency has seemingly interpreted the ADA in a way that doesn’t require them to retrofit old stations if the cost is prohibitively out of proportion. Thus, despite extensive renovations to, say, Smith-9th Sts., the station is far from accessible with no plans to rectify this accessibility gap in the future. (New build stations will, of course, be fully ADA compliant.)
Meanwhile, the MTA has shied away from reopening subway station entrances and exits that were closed shortly before the ADA become law because the agency is concerned doing so will trigger ADA compliancy obligations. Thus, all riders are paying the costs in high and increasing paratransit services and in inconvenient station design that leads to crowding and frustration.
What I would like to understand is another element of cost-shifting. The MTA has spent billions of dollars over the years on paratransit while barely complying with the ADA. How much money could it save on paratransit by investing upfront in a more aggressive plan to make more of the subway system accessible? These reports do not reach this question, but I think it’s key. If paratransit costs are going to increase by 33 percent over the next four years, is there another way to slow spending otherwise?
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.
Over the past few weeks, New York taxis have dominated the transit headlines. Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed the livery cab hail bill, and wheelchair-accessible taxicabs took the spotlight. Despite the high costs of such access, the new plan calls for a steep increase in the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Meanwhile, a federal judge decided last week that New York City had to make its taxi fleet more accessible.
For regular subway riders, this news doesn’t seem to carry a big impact. It will be easier to flag down a cab in the outer reaches of New York City that do not enjoy regular yellow cab service, but outside of the money that should come the city’s way, it’s hard to see how these happenings could impact the MTA. They do, however, have the potential to solve a problem by reforming the way Access-A-Ride does business.
According to a report in Crain’s New York, the looming changes to the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s fleet could change Access-a-Ride for the better. Jeremy Smerd has more:
A year ago, the MTA launched a pilot program with the Taxi and Limousine Commission to test the theory that, because 80% of disabled riders do not use wheelchairs, the taxi fleet could handle much of the business now outsourced to private companies at an average cost of $60 per ride.
The program allows 400 riders to use a debit card to pay for taxi service. The passenger pays $2.25—the cost of a one-way subway ride—and the state picks up the rest of the tab. The agency estimates the program will save $34 a trip and, coupled with other changes, $66.2 million next year in paratransit costs. Advocates believe more savings—and better service for riders—would result from expanding the program to the outer boroughs, especially now that as many as 18,000 cars will be allowed to pick up street hails.
Advocates approached the idea of a dedicated debit card to use with livery cars nearly three years ago. They called it the Access-a-Card. But MTA officials balked at the idea because they worried that riders would take advantage of the program and drive-up costs, said Avik Kabessa, a member of the Livery Roundtable who was part of the discussions…The city is putting in place a dispatch system next year that would allow disabled riders to call 311 to get a wheelchair accessible taxi. But it remains unclear whether the Access-a-Ride debit-card pilot program will be expanded.
If the MTA can figure out a way to contain and reduce Access-A-Ride costs, they will gain a tremendous amount of financial flexibility. It often flies below the radar, but the ADA-mandated program costs the authority a few hundred million dollars a year. It’s not a particularly efficient program either with the cost per rider far exceeding that of even the most wasteful bus lines.
As the city gears up to address issues concerning taxi accessibility, TLC officials should work with the MTA to ensure cooperation on cost-reduction measures. The opportunity is there. Now, it’s just up to someone to seize it. Those New Yorkers who rely on the subways would reap the benefits, and those who use Access-A-Ride would find a more flexible and personal system at their disposal.
As with many elements of the unfunded federally mandated ADA, the MTA’s Paratransit obligations are crushing its budget. As the above graph shows, the authority’s costs are skyrocketing, and last year, for instance, it paid out $451 million to provide door-to-door service for everyone who needed (and some who did not). Now the authority is turning to a taxi cab pilot program to save money.
Earlier this week, Jay Walder and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a 90-day pilot for Access-a-Ride customers that will enable these riders to take taxis at a discounted rate. By using Chase Pre-Paid Visa cards, the 400 Access-a-Ride volunteers will be able to hail any yellow taxi for pick-ups and drop-offs south of 96th St. in Manhattan. These customers are all ambulatory, and the MTA expects costs to drop from $49 a trip to $15 a trip.
“We are working every day to find new ways to help our disabled customers navigate the city, whether it’s through our 85 accessible subway stations, fully-accessible fleet of 6,000 buses or our paratransit services,” the MTA Chairman and CEO said. “This initiative recognizes that most Access-A-Ride users don’t need a wheelchair lift, and by targeting service to the needs of different customers within the disabled community we’re able to dramatically improve service and cut costs at the same time. For the first time, our disabled customers will be able to take regularly scheduled trips by hailing a yellow taxi and using a special, pre-loaded debit card.”
So how does it work? Chase and New York City Transit worked closely to calculate potential costs for a taxi ride, and Transit has loaded money onto these debit cards. The cards are dispatched to the 400 volunteers, and every two weeks, the customers will mail the MTA a check for $2.25 multiplied by the total number of rides they took. The authority will then reload the pre-paid debit cards.
The MTA expects to save between $155,000 and $200,000 a month in the first 90 days of the pilot alone, and if the pilot is successful this plan could expand to include more and more of the city’s disabled riders. “We first proposed this idea on the campaign trail last year and later incorporated it into our joint effort with the City Council to make New York a more age-friendly city,” the Mayor said. “We are now ready to deliver on our promise to offer Access-A-Ride users more convenience and greater flexibility — at a lower cost to taxpayers.”
David Yassky, head of the TLC, praised this pilot program as well. “Using the taxi fleet will give Access-A-Ride customers better service at a cheaper cost,” he said. “This is smart transportation policy by the MTA.”
While this is certainly a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the problem of accessible subway travel. Due to valid concerns over cost, the MTA has been very resistant to the need to improve access underground. But that is just one of the ills of an unfunded federal mandate. The Access-a-Ride costs and debate over Key Stations might be a problem that rests on the MTA’s shoulders, but it starts in D.C. A taxi pilot is only the first step.
Earlier this fall, a group of advocates fighting for the rights of disabled New Yorkers made headlines when they filed suit against the MTA over plans for the Dyckman St. station rehab. The suit, which alleges an overall failure on the part of Transit to make the subway system handicapped-accessible, says that the authority is not fulfilling its obligations under the ADA as it renovates Dyckman St. in Upper Manhattan. The MTA does not comment on ongoing legal fights, and work has proceeded apace at the station.
Piggybacking off of the attention given to the lawsuit, Jillian Jonas wrote an extensive piece on the state of underground accessibility for Gotham Gazette, and as you would imagine, disabilities advocates are not happy. Only 89 subway stations are accessible while 379 are not. “It is an absolute disgrace that 20 years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” attorney Julie Pinovar said in October and repeated to Jonas.
In essence, the problems are threefold: The MTA is legally required to upgrade only 100 “Key Station” under an exemption from the Americans with Disabilities Act, an unfunded federal mandate, and advocates have been happy with that arrangement. Meanwhile, escalator and elevator outages lead to situations where accessible stations are made inaccessible, and disabled riders have little advanced notice of the malfunctions. Finally, the MTA opted for Access-A-Ride in the early 1980s, and the costs from that program have spiraled out of control, leading the authority to try to cut services for the disabled. No one is happy with the arrangement.
Ultimately, the problem is one of paying it forward. MTA officials opted for a paratransit solution at a time when they didn’t have money or foresight. They reportedly believed Access-A-Ride would cost just $9 million a year, and now it costs $450 million annually. Had they spent the money over the decades on station upgrades, fewer riders would need Paratransit, and most of the system would be accessible. Had the federal government been willing to foot any of the bill for the costly ADA upgrades, the entire fight would be moot.
“The MTA made a stupid decision in the 1980s when … they [were] foolishly relegating people with disabilities to Access-A-Ride, not realizing how the cost would grow over the years if they didn’t do more than make buses accessible,” Edith Prentiss, a vice president with Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York, said. “For years, bus lifts were as unreliable as subway elevators are today.”
While Paratransit trips number just under 16,000 a day — compared with over 5 million daily subway riders — this is a costly problem that hits disabled riders particularly hard. They do not want to be relegated to second-class status and have been vocal critics of the MTA. Still, a solution remains out of hand and out of sight as money and costs are, as always, the overarching problems.
When the MTA announced in July that they would be spending $45 million on the Dyckman Street station rehabilitation, the project drew the attention of disabled advocates because the plans did not include ADA upgrades. Now, these groups are filing suit. In a complaint filed earlier this week in federal court, the United Spinal Association charges the MTA with ADA violations and has requested an injunction halting the Dyckman Street work until it complies with federal law.
“If the MTA is not required to make the Dyckman Street Station accessible, it is unlikely that the people with disabilities will ever be able to use the station because once this major renovation is complete, no project of this scope is likely to be undertaken at the Dyckman Street Station for decades,” the complaint says.
The battle over this station first came up over the summer when Transit officials responded to complaints from disabled groups about the scope of the work. The MTA said that they didn’t have the money to install elevators or ramps at Dyckman St. and weren’t required by law to do so. At the time, they claimed that the station “does not fit the criteria for a key station” and is not on the list of 100 “key stations” to become ADA-compliant by 2020. The stop, Transit spokesperson Deirdre Parker said in July, is “not a terminal point, is not a transfer point to other bus or subway lines, is not near any major activity centers and ranks 185th out of 422 stations in ridership.”
The United Spinal Association disputes these claims. They say that even if Dyckman St. cannot be made fully accessible right now, the Americans with Disabilities Act still requires the MTA to spend 20 percent of the project budget on what they term access improvements. “By making incremental improvements to accessibility now,” the complaint says, “even great accessibility can be achieved when future projects are considered at the…station.”
Despite the United Spinal Association’s focus on the Dyckman St. rehab, their complaint touches upon issues more serious than that and stems from what many disabled riders believe is institutional neglect on the part of the MTA. When Congress enacted the ADA — an unfunded federal mandate — the New York Senate delegation, federal regulators and the MTA worked out a compromise. The authority signed a consent decree to make 100 key stations fully ADA accessible by 2020. So far, they’ve completed 73 key stations and 16 non-key stations.
Yet, advocates for disabled riders say this isn’t enough. “It is an absolute disgrace that twenty years after the ADA was passed, more than 80% of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” Julia Pinover, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Advocates who is representing the United Spinal Association in its case, said.
The MTA does not comment on lawsuits in progress, but in the past, the authority has spoken about issues of cost. The ADA is, as I mentioned, an unfunded federal law. Congress has required state and state entities to pay for these costly upgrades but has not provided federal dollars for the projects. When the MTA upgrades a station, it must include more money than it would to ensure compliance with the ADA. Even though the authority says it doesn’t have the money for upgrades to Dyckman St., the complaint — embedded below — makes a strong case for the plaintiffs.
In related news, the MTA plans to cut back Paratransit service to the minimum required by law. The service costs $470 million a year, and by eliminated some door-to-door service and cutting the driver rolls, Jay Walder believes he can save up to $80 million annually.
Advocates too are up in arms, but again, they recognize that the MTA’s fiscal problems are a high barrier. Still, they want the authority to do more. “The Americans With Disabilities Act,” Mike Godino of the Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled said to New York 1, “should be viewed as a floor, not a ceiling, to accesibility.”
After the jump, a copy of the complaint filed in United Spinal Association v. MTA. Read More→
When the MTA scales back service next month, its disabled riders will see many of their Access-A-Ride and paratransit options whittled down. The authority currently feels its Access-A-Ride options are too inclusive and too broad and that cost savings can be found by better personalizing paratransit trips and excluding some who have previously been included. To that end, the authority will implement $40 million worth of savings by replacing door-to-door service with feeder routes to accessible fixed-route transit stops, determining eligibility on a trip-by-trip rather than season-by-season basis and streamlining management and scheduling.
While the main focus of the coverage around the service cuts has delved into the labor battles and impact on everyday riders, City Limits recently highlighted how the cuts will impact the disabled riders. Many will find their trips longer and more circuitous; others will rely more on taxi vouchers than transit options. Still, as the MTA cuts services, they’re forging ahead with ADA compliancy efforts as more stations are slated to become accessible throughout five years covered by the next capital campaign. It is a challenging balancing act as the MTA stretches their dollars to keep pace with demand.
During last week’s public hearing on the fare hikes and service cuts, a common theme emerged concerning the MTA’s Access-A-Ride paratransit service. With plans to double the paratransit fares on the table, advocates for the disabled and disabled riders all said the same thing: Don’t balance the budget on the backs of those least able to get around town.
Over the weekend, The Times examined this oft-neglected aspect of the MTA’s Doomsday budget. Gregory Beyer wrote about this plight of the disabled:
[W]hile all transit riders can expect a fare hike this year — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority conducted public hearings last week on the proposal — the 123,000 users of Access-a-Ride may well face a much steeper increase, according to Kevin Ortiz, an M.T.A. spokesman. Under two of the four plans that the authority is considering to close its budget gap, the Access-a-Ride fare would more than double, to $4.50 or even $5.
“If I have to pay, I have to pay,” Mr. Suss said about the possibility of a much higher fare. “But I resent that when my income is going down, everything else is going up.”
Asked why Access-a-Ride customers would shoulder such a comparatively steep increase, Mr. Ortiz said the guidelines of the Americans With Disabilities Act allow paratransit fares to run up to twice the base fare. He added that the authority is one of the few mass transit agencies in the country that doesn’t already charge double the base fare; the paratransit systems in Atlanta, Miami, Denver and Philadelphia do. All other aspects of the paratransit service, he added, will remain the same.
Meanwhile, in today’s Daily News, New York City Comptroller and 2009 mayoral hopeful William C. Thompson sounds off on the paratransit fare increase. The Mayor, he says, alone has the power to stop this unfair fare increase. He writes:
But unlike the 23% increase proposed for subways and buses – which is likewise inequitable – the Access-A-Ride hike can be stopped right now by Mayor Bloomberg, who has the power because of a contract the city signed 15 years ago with the MTA…
[In 1992], then-Mayor Dinkins negotiated a contract with the MTA that set the cost of a trip on Access-A-Ride equal to the one-way base fare on mass transit – currently $2. The contract says that the MTA cannot change the terms of the deal without the written permission of the mayor…
Placing a greater burden on the disabled is unfair and unacceptable. It’s time for the mayor to tell the MTA that he won’t allow a doubling of the mass transit fare for Access-A-Ride users.
Additionally, advocates for the disabled threatened to sue the MTA under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they approve a 100 percent paratransit fare increase. It seems, however, based on Ortiz’s statements to The Times that the increase would be legal if unfair.
In the end, this all goes back to the same thing. It’s on Albany to rescue the MTA or else the transit authority will have to resort to the measure it has at its disposal to balance its books. It’s unpopular, it’s unfair, but it’s the only legal way without a transit bailout for New York City.