When it comes to reducing the growing costs of its paratransit services, the MTA seems to be following an old adage: throw everything at the problem and see what sticks.
The board approved a plan last week to give free MetroCards to people who are eligible for paratransit services. Better known as Access-a-Ride, the paratransit program provides door-to-door transportation for New Yorkers with disabilities for the cost of a subway swipe. The MTA hopes that the free MetroCards will encourage a significant number of paratransit riders to switch to public transportation when possible.
The MetroCard plan is the MTA’s second attempt in as many years to cut spending on these services, which cost $442 million last year and are estimated at more than $500 million this year. In 2011, the agency began a pilot program that allowed paratransit riders to hail taxis and pay their fares with pre-loaded debit cards. The MTA plans to expand this taxi program in addition to providing the free MetroCards.
Disability advocates support giving paratransit customers options other than Access-a-Ride. However, they say that accessibility hurdles need to be overcome before either of these programs can be successful on a large scale.About 172,000 New Yorkers each year rely on paratransit services to get around the city. Running the Access-a-Ride vehicles costs the MTA about $60 per person, per trip. However, only a quarter of the riders actually require a vehicle equipped with a wheelchair lift. The MTA hopes to save $90 million a year by 2015 by convincing a portion of the other 75 percent of riders to switch to public transportation.
However, Robert Schoenfeld of Disabled in Action says it’s not that simple. He predicts very few Access-a-Ride users will make the switch even to get a free ride.
“Just giving a person a MetroCard doesn’t ensure that they’ll use it,” Schoenfeld said. “There are any number of reasons a person may have to use Access-a-Ride rather than transit.”
Schoenfeld points out that many paratranist riders who don’t rely on wheelchairs still have limited mobility. They are concerned about using public transportation because of accessibility issues. Only 75 out of 468 subway stations have ramps or elevators. Others may struggle simply getting to and from subway stations and bus stops.
“If a person has a heart or respiratory condition, they can’t climb the stairs or walk the distance to the subway even if don’t need a mobility device,” he said.
Because of this, many people who rely on paratransit view the taxi program as a more viable alternative than public transportation. It allows riders more flexibility and independence than Access-a-Ride, but still provides the necessary support for those with limited mobility.
During the 2011 pilot program, the MTA provided 400 Access-a-Ride users with debit cards to use for rides on yellow cabs. Riders then reimbursed the MTA $2.25 for each ride they took before they could receive their next debit cards. The program was so popular among users that the agency expanded it to the outer boroughs through an agreement with a car service company.
The MTA’s paratransit division saved nearly $1 million during the first year of the program. They are now looking for ways to make the pilot program permanent, according to Thomas Charles, vice president of the paratransit division.
“We believe we have learned much from this pilot and will begin to develop a scope of work and seek proposals to eventually establish a contract award to offer prepaid debit cards to our customers,” Charles said in an email.
Nancy Miller, executive director of the nonprofit Visions Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said the program was very popular among those who tried it.
“The people who used it, loved it and the blind community supports it in general,” Miller said
However, she notes that from the perspective of the disabled community, two issues would need to be resolved before the program could be expanded. First, all of the taxi meters would need to be outfitted with voice technology so that passengers who are blind would have a way to independently verify their taxi fares.
The second problem is a thornier one. Currently only 230 New York City taxis, or two percent of the fleet, are wheelchair accessible. Because of this, many people who are eligible for paratransit services would not benefit from this program, which has caused opposition in the broader disabled community.
“There’s a real feeling among many groups that if it’s not a solution for everyone, it’s not a solution for anyone,” Miller said. “They feel it pits people with one type of disability against people with another type of disability.”
One solution would be to make all New York City taxis wheelchair accessible so that the program could be expanded to include everyone who uses paratransit services. However, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Last week a federal court ruled that the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission does not have to increase its number of wheelchair-accessible cabs. The ruling was a major defeat for disabled advocates. It may also limit the MTA’s options for creating an alternative paratransit program using taxis.
“If the city, instead of fighting it, had approved an accessible taxi, this would have been a great plan,” said Schoenfeld in reference to the debit card program. “With the user subsidies, they would have taken a lot of people off of the paratransit service. Now we’re stuck with a really bad system and the MetroCards won’t make much of a difference.”