More MS news articles for July 2001

Disabled Riders Weary of Waiting

MetroAccess Users' Complaints Help Lead To Federal Review

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2001; Page B01

Diana Stewart rolled her wheelchair out of her Chevy Chase office and parked on the sidewalk, waiting for her 6 p.m. ride home. Three hours later, her ride pulled up.

Nancy Webb sat on a friend's porch in the District, expecting her noon ride to Prince George's County. It came at 5 p.m.

It should take Cathy Milone 45 minutes to get home to Bowie from her downtown job at the Department of Justice. Aboard a MetroAccess van, the ride has taken 2 1/2 hours.

Stewart, Webb and Milone are among 17,500 disabled people eligible to ride MetroAccess, the region's public-transit service for those who can't use regular buses or subway trains. Stewart has spina bifida, two paralyzed legs and a ventilator. Webb and Milone are blind.

They depend on MetroAccess to connect them with the world. And they say MetroAccess is failing them.

"Every day, people are wasting their lives waiting for MetroAccess," said Linda Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council, a nonprofit legal-advocacy group in Washington. "That's not fair, that's not right, that's not legal."

But LogistiCare, the company that runs MetroAccess under contract with Metro, responds that it provides good service on a tight budget to a growing number of riders and that its drivers are on time for more than 90 percent of trips.

Metro has no way to verify LogistiCare's performance, but it says the company needs to improve. "LogistiCare has some financial problems in terms of getting their operation efficient enough, and they've got some work to do," said James Gallagher, Metro's deputy general manager for operations.

Federal officials plan to review MetroAccess to determine whether it is complying with federal law. "We've heard there are problems on the system," said Arthur Lopez, director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Federal Transit Administration. "Since it's here in the capital, in our back yard, it's proper to take a look at it."

The federal government requires Metro and other transit agencies to provide comparable service for the disabled. In 1994, Metro created MetroAccess, a fleet of vans and sedans for curb-to-curb service.

But disabled riders and their advocates say that MetroAccess isn't comparable to trains and buses. "MetroAccess does not pick people up on time, does not deliver people on time [and] schedules the same vehicle to be in two places at one time," Royster said. She added that drivers are "routinely rude" and poorly trained and "don't even know how to tie down a wheelchair. We just have complaints in every possible area."

The task of running door-to-door service for thousands of people spread across two states and a city clogged with some of the nation's worst traffic is difficult at best.

But several factors are making the ride bumpier: Metro's poor monitoring of the service, mistakes Metro made when writing the MetroAccess contract, LogistiCare's tardiness in meeting contract requirements and the company's policy of overbooking rides, among them.

In January 2000, Metro awarded a four-year, $90 million contract to LogistiCare, a Georgia-based company and the nation's largest provider of non-emergency medical transportation.

Under the contract, Metro provides 138 wheelchair-lift vans and sedans and LogistiCare handles the calls for service, scheduling and operations. LogistiCare hires subcontractors -- small transportation companies scattered across the region -- to operate the service with their drivers.

MetroAccess is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and a bargain for riders, who pay $2.20 for a one-way trip anywhere in the region and can reserve unlimited numbers of rides for any reason. "It's absolutely miraculous that I can go from my home in Olney to Sixth Street downtown for $2.20," said Doris Matchett, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. "I'm not saying it's wonderful, but LogistiCare is an improvement over what was before."

When it was competing against three other companies for the MetroAccess contract, LogistiCare touted its technology, promising to use the Internet and satellites to track its vans and sedans, so it could monitor performance and adjust schedules on the fly.

But a year and a half later, LogistiCare has yet to launch the technology.

"It's a fairly complicated, sophisticated thing we're trying to do," said Henry Hardy, LogistiCare's vice president of business development. Efforts have been hampered by software problems and by changes Metro made in the results it wants, he said, but the new technology should be running by the end of this month. Metro can't penalize LogistiCare for that delay because the contract it wrote lacks a deadline for the technology.

One factor that made LogistiCare stand out from competitors was its low bid -- $31 million less than the next closest bidder.

But that low bid came back to haunt LogistiCare because Metro used inaccurate data when it invited bids, inflating ridership figures by about 20 percent. Metro says it was an accounting error.

Because Metro pays by the ride, that meant lower profits for LogistiCare. A source close to the company said LogistiCare is struggling to break even on the Metro contract while delivering 1,800 trips a day.

The subcontractors, in turn, say they are not being paid enough. Last year, LogistiCare dropped one of its most reliable and most experienced subcontractors, TMSI Inc., because it said it couldn't afford TMSI's rates.

"It's a known fact that this contract was underbid," said the operator of one small transportation company. "We're doing this for 66 percent of what we were getting paid before LogistiCare took over. We can't pay proper salaries, we can't buy insurance for our employees. Metro gave it to LogistiCare for the low bid and walked away."

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because LogistiCare has forbidden its subcontractors to talk about MetroAccess with anyone -- local, state or federal officials, advocacy groups, even Metro. "We can't talk to Metro, can't tell them what's happening, what the problems are," the subcontractor said.

After months of negotiating with LogistiCare, Metro agreed in May to increase the amount it pays per ride from $21.93 to $24.63.

Metro believes LogistiCare should be able to make it work. "They bid the job, we made a mistake and we corrected that mistake for them," Gallagher said. "Now they have to be willing to be efficient."

Interviews with MetroAccess drivers and a review of schedules reveal another problem: itineraries that call for drivers to pick up three or four passengers scattered across the region at the same time and take them to far-flung destinations. Some itineraries, called manifests, all but guarantee drivers will be late.

"The drivers look at the manifests and shake their heads," said Milone, who was once picked up at her downtown office at 5:15 p.m. and driven to upper Northwest Washington, then south to Fort Washington in Prince George's County to pick up other riders before she was finally dropped at her Bowie home at 8 p.m. "This is ridiculous."

LogistiCare overschedules rides by about 20 percent to compensate for no-shows, Hardy said.

The complaint rate among riders has nearly doubled since 1999, with most protests coming from Montgomery County, followed by the District, Prince George's County and Northern Virginia. Riders are most angered by late pickups.

Glenn Millis, Metro's director of transit for the disabled, blames traffic jams for the late trips. "They're caught in the same traffic as anyone else," Millis told Metro directors.

That explanation makes Eileen Dillon laugh. "You can't blame traffic for a couple hours' delay," said Dillon, a Bethesda resident whose son uses MetroAccess every day. She also serves on the Montgomery County Commission on People with Disabilities, which will hold a meeting about MetroAccess on Wednesday. "We all drive in traffic every day but manage to get back and forth in a reasonable time. . . . There's something broken in this system."

Metro workers are responsible for checking the performance of MetroAccess vehicles two days each month. But that work stopped in December. Transit officials say the lapse stems from a staff shortage. "There is not a way for us to do a real [MetroAccess] performance audit," Gallagher said.

Metro is also supposed to investigate complaints from MetroAccess riders, which come in at a pace of about 600 a month. It can penalize LogistiCare for valid complaints. Last year, Metro fined LogistiCare $94,700 after determining 947 complaints to be valid.

But this year, Metro hasn't fined LogistiCare at all, said Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson, who also cited a staffing shortage.

Hardy says MetroAccess riders will see improved service later this summer. LogistiCare is hiring a new manager for the MetroAccess contract, one who has local experience in running transportation for the disabled. And it plans to hire a full-time "fixer" who will focus on chronic service troubles, he said. The satellite technology should be running, he said.

LogistiCare is also encouraging riders to schedule trips for off-peak hours to smooth out demand.

Some passengers remain skeptical.

"The times I have to rely on MetroAccess, I am so frustrated and have been in situations where I'm made to feel so helpless," said Karen Johnsen, who has muscular dystrophy and works to improve transportation for the disabled through Independence Now, a Prince George's group. "When you schedule a trip, you're taking a gamble of whether you're going to get to your destination or not."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company