Cities grappling with costs of paratransit

Marketplace Staff Jul 22, 2010

Cities grappling with costs of paratransit

Marketplace Staff Jul 22, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Twenty years ago this coming Monday, July of 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law. Not overnight, but in the years that followed, parts of society that had been off-limits were opened up to people living with disabilities. Part of the reason that process was so slow was in trying to figure out who was going to pay for the changes. In the public sector, anyway, it was mostly cities and states — not the Feds. That’s especially true for public transportation which in many ways is still struggling to adapt to an ADA world.

From WAMU in Washington D.C., David Schultz reports.

David Schultz: Ed McEntee is waiting for a van. He’s in the lobby of the office building where he works, sitting in his motorized wheelchair.

Ed McEntee: I had polio when I was eight years old. Right now I’m 66, so I’ve been in a wheelchair for roughly 58 years.

He’s waiting on MetroAccess, a service D.C.’s local public transit agency created specifically to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. MetroAccess consists of wheelchair-accessible vans and taxis that provide door-to-door service for people with disabilities. McEntee scheduled a van to be here a half hour ago but it’s not. So he calls their dispatch center.

Dispatch Center: If you have a trip scheduled for today, and would like to check on your ride, press two.

McEntee says delays like this are all too common.

McEntee: I usually joke, but it’s not some joking matter really, that there’s at least one nightmare a week. And one never knows when that nightmare is going to happen.

When it does, he says, the waits can stretch on for hours. Despite this, McEntee rides MetroAccess every day along with a rapidly growing number of others.

Christian Kent is the general manager of MetroAccess. He says his service has grown by 20 percent every year for the past four years.

Christian Kent: It’s not so much that people are using the service more, it’s that more people are using the service.

And as a result, in the past decade, the cost of operating MetroAccess quadrupled. D.C.’s transit agency responded earlier this year by cutting MetroAccess service and raising fares.

Kent: This is a national trend. People are living longer with modern advances in medicine. As that trend continues there are more and more people that are going to rely on these types of services.

But these federally mandated services are becoming more and more expensive. From 2004 to 2008, the nationwide costs of providing transit to people with disabilities doubled to nearly $5 billion.

Wendy Klancher: Any transit agency, any publicly funded transit agency has to provide this comparable service to people who aren’t able to use the bus and rail.

That’s Wendy Klancher, a planner with the Washington area’s Transportation Planning Board who works on accessibility issues. She says requiring transit agencies to provide this service puts them at odds with the customers they’re supposed to be serving.

Klancher: The transit agency tends to have concerns about the escalating costs. The disability community tends to have issues with the service quality. And it’s not easy anywhere.

Meanwhile, back at Ed McEntee’s office, a MetroAccess van has finally arrived, almost an hour and a half late.

McEntee: Look at that, he showed up. That’s him.

Despite this delay, the most recent of many, McEntee will continue to take MetroAccess. He has no other option.

McEntee: In order to sit there and be a viable human being in society, you have to be able to get from point A to point B. And that’s all there is.

McEntee certainly doesn’t want to go back to the days before MetroAccess when he had to rely solely on his family to drive him around. But, McEntee says, if his wheelchair didn’t prevent him from getting to the bus stop, he’d quit riding MetroAccess tomorrow.

From Washington DC, I’m David Schultz for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.