MTA service for disabled decried by advocates

Letters accuse agency of tardiness, stranding riders

February 27, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

In a complaint alleging widespread failures in the state's Mobility transportation service for the disabled, an advocacy group claimed yesterday that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and asked the Federal Transit Administration to investigate.

The Maryland Disability Law Center submitted 350 letters detailing more than 1,000 complaints in the past year, largely from Baltimore-area disabled riders who said the service had repeatedly caused them to be late to work and miss classes, dialysis treatments and appointments with doctors and others. Some said they had been left stranded outside for extended periods in inclement weather and in unsafe neighborhoods.

Under federal law, the disabled are entitled to public transportation services equivalent to that available to others. Mobility aims to help meet that need.

"The sheer volume of complaints, along with the nature and severity of the problems people are experiencing, warrants this mass complaint," Allison Scharf, an attorney for the law center, wrote requesting the investigation.

After receiving the complaint yesterday, officials at the Maryland Transit Administration said it would take a "good amount of time" to review it and respond. "We feel it's critical to get to the bottom of the situations detailed by the 350 letter-writers," said MTA spokeswoman Suzanne Bond.

The MTA has made numerous improvements over the past year, from adding vehicles to shifting more employees to peak rider hours, she said. MTA records "don't necessarily bear out everything we have from the MDLC. We're doing a good job," Bond said.

Officials with the Federal Transit Administration hadn't seen the complaint late yesterday but said they had decided to conduct a detailed compliance review of Maryland's system based on about a dozen formal complaints filed in Washington.

Mobility's job is to provide curb-to-curb transportation for the disabled on a day's notice. About 12,000 riders, most of them in the Baltimore area, are registered to use the service to get to work, school and appointments.

The service provides more than 600,000 trips a year. Eighty-seven percent of these trips are handled by Yellow Transportation Inc. of Baltimore under a $9.7 million annual contract. The rest are handled directly by the MTA. Riders pay $1.55 a trip.

Bond said on-time performance by MTA and Yellow is about 90 percent. In December, Mobility provided 41,533 trips and received 190 complaints, she said.

The law center challenges both those performance numbers and the level of complaints. "It is important to recognize that many people do not complain because they cannot, they do not feel it will matter or they are afraid they will be retaliated against," Scharf wrote in the complaint.

Among the letters submitted was one from a rider who was scheduled to be picked up from a school on Harford Road at 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 13. After calling once to report his ride was late, he was unable to get through again because the late line was busy. His ride showed up at 11:15 p.m.

Another rider who has experienced problems reported that twice in early December she was picked up on time for her job at the Maryland School for the Blind, only to be delivered more than an hour late.

In a random survey of 180 riders conducted by the law center during the past month, a majority of riders said they were unhappy with the service. Most said their return rides were rarely on time, frequently forcing them to wait more than an hour.

Articles in The Sun more than a year ago also raised questions about the credibility of ride records at that time. Interviews with dozens of riders and their relatives were compared with driver records and revealed numerous cases in which trips were late or never happened, but drivers reported them as on time.

A Sun computer analysis of 10 months of MTA records also found almost 12,000 instances in which drivers acknowledged being late - often by more than an hour - but recorded riders as "no shows."

The MTA is trying to resolve such discrepancies by installing on-board computers that can read "Smartcards" to identify individual riders and the times they board and leave each vehicle. Of the 12,000 registered riders, about 200 are using Smartcards.

In addition, global positioning systems have been installed in all MTA vehicles and in 100 of Yellow's vehicles to verify that drivers at the right places at the right times. Those systems won't be fully operational until 2005, but Bond said the MTA analyzes the global positioning systems daily data to determine whether drivers were at the right location at the right time.

The law center also criticized the MTA for failing to assess financial penalties against Yellow when the company failed to meet standards set by the contract. "It's not productive to those being served to compromise the contractor's ability to provide the service by reducing their available funds," Bond said.

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