One of Andy Byford’s signature initiatives over the past year has been an increased attention on ensuring New York City has an accessible transit system. Last week, I delved into the legal fight over station accessibility and how a recent court case could rightly force the MTA to pursue an aggressive plan to install elevators throughout the subway system. But legal issues aside, Byford has continually recognized the moral imperative pushing the MTA to improve transit accessibility, and his appointment of Alex Elegudin as Transit’s lead accessibility guru last summer was widely applauded.
It was thus a bit jarring last week to read a Daily News report that the MTA planned to end its popular e-hail pilot at the end of April. I didn’t have a chance to cover the launch of the program back in late 2017, but you can still read the MTA’s press release right here. At the start, the program was a pilot for 200 mobility-impaired Access-A-Ride customers to hail yellow or green taxis on demand, and it has been wildly successful. The pilot now covers around 1200 users and allows paratransit customers to book rides up to 24 hours in advance through an app.
In the 15 months since the launch of the on-demand options, Access-A-Ride ridership has spiked while complaints about the service have dipped considerably. For January, the latest month for which data is available, complaints about paratransit were down by over 46% compared with January of 2018, and the MTA attributes the increased usage and relatively more content customers with the use of the e-hail service.
When The News story broke last week, advocates went into overdrive, and the MTA denied it immediately. On Sunday, we learned that rather than ending the pilot, the MTA would in fact be extending the on-demand e-hail pilot through the end of the year while also implementing a new broker service designed to shift more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis and for-hire vehicle services. The news is good in the short-term for paratransit riders, but even in a press release touting the expansion, it’s not hard to read tea leaves. The MTA is worried about costs even as they promise to maintain a $2.75 fare for paratransit trips.
In the press release, the MTA noted that the agency will extend the pilot through the end of 2019 while “continu[ing] to establish how and if it can be made more sustainably permanent and even expandable.” MTA officials echoed these sentiments. “Making taxis and FHVs a growing part of our paratransit service is a win all around, MTA President Pat Foye said. “This service is good for our paratransit customers, good for the MTA, and good for the city’s economy. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in the use of this type of service, and under this program their use will increase even further providing customers better service and increased flexibility. We’d like to see more and more of our paratransit trips delivered by taxis and FHVs in a financially sustainable manner, and we’re beginning by making scheduled taxi trips an increasingly regular feature of our services.”
The key of course are the words on sustainability. A $2.75 fare for paratransit is a significant subsidy, and the MTA’s costs for paratransit service have outpaced projections for some time. The agency is, of course, legally obligated to provide this service, but as with ADA mandates regarding station construction, the requirement is unfunded. In fact, Paratransit Services contracts are the single biggest non-labor line item in New York City Transit’s budget with a cost in excess of $450 million last year. That figure is expected to top $500 million within the next two years, and the MTA draws in only around 40% of that via reimbursements from the city and farebox revenue.
It’s not clear how any of this — the pilot, the funding gap, the need for sustainability — resolves itself. Along with the extension of the on-demand program, the MTA announced a new broker service designed to move more Access-A-Ride trips to taxis which could reduce some of the services contracts, but by maintaining a $2.75 per-ride fare, the MTA will still be in the red by subsidizing taxi trips, albeit by less.
Yet, as Vin Barone detailed in his coverage of the announcement, disabilities advocates are concerned about the program’s future. “The announcement raises more questions than answers,” Joe Rappaport, head of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, said to amNY, citing language on costs. “The MTA is absolutely not committing to keeping the very popular version of on-demand going.”
It is, as always, a question of cost, and as the MTA gears up to study the cost efficiency of the e-hail program, the coming months will give us a roadmap of the MTA’s plans for Access-A-Ride.