Disabled riders seek equality

Problems: Maryland Disability Law Center is filing suit against the MTA on behalf of patrons who complain of poor service.

October 10, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Disability Law Center is going to court today to try to force the state to address long-standing problems in the transit system for disabled riders.

After years of feeling their complaints about the system have been ignored, center attorneys say they will file suit today in federal court in Baltimore to force the Maryland Transit Administration to comply with the law and start fixing a long list of maladies.

Riders have recounted waiting hours for vans or other vehicles to pick them up, being stranded in the cold or dark and being taken on absurd, circuitous routes to their destinations, trips that sometimes end up taking two or three times longer than they should.

Federal officials confirmed many of those complaints in a compliance audit of the MTA done a year ago, finding the agency overstated the timeliness of rides and improperly blamed riders for missed rides.

Robert L. Flanagan, Maryland's secretary of transportation, conceded in an op-ed piece in The Sun in July that the paratransit system is "almost completely dysfunctional." Flanagan is named as a defendant in the suit.

"They've had plenty of time to turn it around. It hasn't turned around," Lauren Young, legal director for the law center, said yesterday. "You have such a second-class, back-door service. It's unconscionable. It's illegal. It's got to stop."

The "Mobility" paratransit system provides about 2,000 trips a day for about 14,000 eligible customers. It's a door-to-door service for people whose disabilities make it too difficult for them to use regular mass transit. Sometimes they are picked up in vans, other times in taxis. Riders pay $1.85 per trip. This separate but equal service is a requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Young, though she says the system is far from equal.

After the Federal Transit Administration's review a year ago, the MTA was required to submit quarterly reports showing improvements. Young said the reports have shown no progress. Promised changes such as decreasing reliance on a single subcontractor, Yellow Transportation, have been repeatedly delayed, she said.

The patience of those at the law center and the riders has run out, she said. They want experts brought in to help develop an immediate plan to fix what is broken, including eliminating late and missed trips, improving scheduling and providing better reporting of performance data.

Young said the Ehrlich administration has been more willing to acknowledge the problems than the Glendening administration, but the apparent good intentions haven't manifested themselves in the form of improvement.

Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said the paratransit mess has been around for years, and the current administration has just had nine months to deal with it. He said planned remedies should be in place early next year. Some fixes, including adding mobile tracking devices to vehicles so dispatchers can find them more easily, are being implemented now, he said.

"Our intention is to continue to work with the MDLC to basically achieve a common goal and that is providing better service to those transit riders who need it the most," Cahalan said. "This isn't an adversarial situation. The MDLC feels it needs to take this action. We are committed to working with them."

Based on the MTA's data, court papers state that 2,600 trips a month are more than one hour late or are aborted when vehicles don't arrive. The number of those so-called missed trips are more than 100 times MTA's performance standard for tardiness.

Mary Ella Smith is one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. The 62-year-old diabetic woman lives in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood and has used the paratransit service for nearly a decade, riding five or six times a month, mostly for doctor's appointments. She uses a scooter to get around because she can no longer walk distances.

"In the last two years, it has gotten worse," she said of the Mobility service.

She has had to cancel doctor's appointments when the van didn't show, she said, and at times she has arrived so late for appointments that the doctors wouldn't see her.

In June, she had the worst experience, she said. She was picked up at 2:30 p.m. for a doctor's appointment on Joppa Road. After five hours and 15 minutes, she was finally returned home -- without going to the doctor's. Most of the time was spent riding around in the van with a lost driver. She said the driver refused to stop to get her something to eat -- critical for a diabetic. The driver also refused her request to stop so she could use a bathroom, she said.

"It scares me every time I have to ride with them, but I have no other choice," Smith said. "I just want somebody to know how bad the system is."

Jo Ann Kucic, who is blind, rides Mobility to and from her Parkville home to downtown Baltimore where she works in the Office of Hearings and Appeals for the Social Security Administration. She said the rides are often late, and she has to miss work. Once she waited more than two hours, and then two vehicles came.

"I personally would pay more," Kucic said, "if we got decent service out of the deal."

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