Under pressure from community activists concerned that disabled people would be left stranded in the cold, the state Mass Transit Administration promised yesterday to beef up its winter para-transit services.
In a letter to attorneys for the Maryland Disability Law Center, MTA Administrator Ron Freeland agreed to add more MTA vehicles to the state's Mobility ride service and to more closely watch the condition of wheelchair lifts on the agency's fixed-route buses.
"The extreme winter weather conditions dictate the need for a formal winterization program," Freeland wrote.
Activists said the promise was a positive step and planned to meet with Freeland next week. "At least he's acknowledging there's a problem," said Gayle Hafner, co-chairman of ADAPT, a group that works for accessible transportation. "The devil is in the details."
Added Lauren Young, an attorney with the law center: "One thing is clear - they're going to put more vehicles on the road, and they're going to extend their hours. Those things are good. We just need to talk more about the numbers."
ADAPT and the law center are part of a new organization called Coalition for Accessible Transportation, representing advocacy groups statewide. The organization was formed in part out of concerns that grew out of a hearing before state legislators last month.
At that hearing, only one disabled person was invited to testify about the condition of the state transit services for the disabled, and some who were there say the testimony failed to address many of the most serious problems.
About 5,400 disabled people in the Baltimore area rely on the Mobility service, paying $1.55 per trip to get to work, school, church, doctor and other appointments. Most of the service is handled under a $9.7 million contract with Yellow Transportation Co. of Baltimore.
In an October article, The Sun detailed long-standing problems with Mobility's services. The problems primarily involved the 85 percent of the program provided by Yellow Transportation. Many riders described rides that were frequently late or that sometimes failed to show up at all, with disabled people sometimes waiting in foul weather or dangerous neighborhoods.
Yellow and the MTA have maintained that rides are on time 92 percent to 95 percent of the time.
In addition, two recent reports by advocacy groups say that wheelchair lifts on MTA buses for the disabled fail 15 percent of the time, also leaving riders stranded, sometimes for extended periods.
In a letter Dec. 7 to Freeland, lawyers from the disability law center appealed for a winter protection plan, suggesting that MTA add more of its own buses to the service.
"While waiting in the cold is a hardship for anyone, for many persons with disabilities, it presents a genuine health risk," they wrote, appealing for prompt action "so that people are not left stranded, shivering, unsafe, or made ill due to transit service problems."
A letter supporting the request signed by 20 organizations under the letterhead of the new coalition followed a few days later.
In his letter yesterday, Freeland agreed to add two MTA vehicles for the Mobility program, to help during morning and evening peak hours. He also said an 800-number would be created by Jan. 15, to take phone calls from disabled MTA riders experiencing problems. Maintenance reviews of the MTA buses also will be stepped up to identify problems with wheelchair lifts, he wrote.
But advocates say there appear to be no changes planned in MTA's backup policy for Mobility vehicles, under which a backup vehicle is not dispatched until a rider has made three calls to its late line. By that time, said Young, the disabled riders have usually been waiting two hours for a ride.
"We would say it's illegal and inhumane to keep people waiting that long," she said.
The law center has established a complaint line to take calls from any disabled riders who have problems with Mobility or MTA buses: 410-234-2791, Ext. 244.
Freeland was out of the office yesterday and unavailable to discuss details of the plan.
Meanwhile, advocates say they've noticed no significant improvements in Mobility's overall on-time performance since October.
But some of the riders featured in the Sun article said recently that their service improved after the article was published, mainly as a result of having been shifted from Yellow Transportation's vehicles to those run by MTA.
One of these riders now with MTA, Derrick Waters, a 21-year-old paraplegic from Randallstown who works for UPS, said his rides had been late about 50 percent of the time, but now only about 15 percent are late. "Everything is going OK now," he said. "I just wish everyone could reap the benefits."
Simona Savoy, an East Baltimore quadriplegic who had frequent ride problems, said she, too, has been moved to MTA service: "Not many of my rides are late now, and when they are, it's only maybe about 10 minutes."
But others said their troubles have continued.
Hafner, a lawyer who uses a wheelchair and relies on Mobility to get to and from work and other appointments, said at first things got better. Last month, only about 20 percent of her rides were late. But this month, the service has deteriorated noticeably, she said, and about half her rides are late.
"My rides home are rarely on time," she said. "And if I have any kind of midday ride, it's almost always late."
And Doris Spriggs, of North Baltimore, a 67-year-old with multiple sclerosis who works in Mayor Martin O'Malley's Office of Constituent Services, said her ride service remains "terrible."
"Last week I had to miss a day of work because they didn't pick me up," she said. It was the second time this month, she added.