Sherria Young, a young blind woman from West Baltimore, has had problems with the Maryland Transportation Administration's Mobility van and cab service in the past - missed rides, drivers arriving without a car seat for her baby, jammed phone lines.
But before July 1, when the MTA introduced a new management plan that was supposed to remedy the ills of the troubled transit system for the disabled, she had never been denied a ride entirely. That has happened twice this month - and Young thinks the agency has only succeeded in making a bad situation "terrible."
"I think they should go back to the old system," she said.
She's not alone in her discontent. Workers at the Maryland Disability Law Center say their complaints have increased fourfold since state transportation officials launched a plan to improve what Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan has called an "almost completely dysfunctional" service.
Dialysis patients say they've been picked up hours late, forcing them to cut short their treatment and putting them at serious risk. The chief executive of a rehabilitation and day care center for disabled adults says clients who should be picked up at 2:30 p.m. have been picked up as late as 8 p.m. And other riders have had to pay for expensive taxicab rides when their scheduled rides failed to show up.
Lauren Young, legal director of the disability law center, said service has deteriorated since the July 1 switch to a new system under which the MTA has full control of scheduling and routing, and a new set of computer and management procedures. Whatever the system's previous problems, she said, riders who called in on time weren't turned away.
"People can understand a few bumps in the transition, but not what's happened so far," she said. Her word for the state of Mobility now: "chaos."
Jo Ann Kucic, president of the Central Maryland Council for the Blind and a Mobility customer, said she has been fielding calls from members complaining about the service.
"That's all I heard last week was horror stories about how rides were late or didn't show up," she said. "This is beyond a crisis."
Flanagan acknowledged some customers have been denied rides during the transition.
"There have been a limited number of situations where we have found unexpected constraints in the system that we are moving to remedy as quickly as possible," he said. "What I can assure our customers is that from the secretary down to the people in the trenches we are monitoring the levels of service."
Last year the law center filed suit against Flanagan and the MTA, contending that the failures of the Mobility system amounted to a "gross violation" of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The law requires transit authorities to provide alternate transportation to people whose disabilities make it impossible for them to use public bus or rail systems.
The state Department of Transportation and MTA had originally planned to revamp the service last year. But the transition was delayed by a botched procurement under which the state sought new subcontractors to provide rides for 85 percent of the estimated 2,300 passengers Mobility carries each day.
Yellow Transportation Inc., the incumbent contractor, successfully challenged the department's contract award before the Board of Contract Appeals on grounds that MTA officials were biased in favor of Laidlaw Transit Services, one of two winning bidders.
During the dispute, Flanagan and other officials laid the blame for service problems at Yellow's doorstep. But after Yellow's legal victory led to Laidlaw's disqualification, the department had little choice but to keep Yellow as one of its contractors. California-based MV Transportation received the contract for the other half of service not provided by the MTA's own drivers.
On several occasions during the Yellow dispute, Flanagan appeared before the Board of Public Works to vow his department would do whatever it took to get disabled Marylanders the rides to which they are entitled. But disabled riders and their advocates say the promise hasn't been kept.
Janice Fry-Angel, chief executive of the League for People with Disabilities, said Mobility had its problems before this month - but nothing like what she's witnessed since July 1.
"There's a difference between not good and a disaster," she said.
`Breaks your heart'
Fry-Angel said drivers have told clients of her nonprofit organization, which primarily serves people disabled as a result of injuries, disease or strokes, that there's no guarantee they'll be picked up at the center on East Cold Spring Lane.
As a result, she said, attendance by Mobility customers at the center's programs has dropped by half. On Friday - as the Mobility Web site announced "Regularly Scheduled Service. No major disruptions" - the center had only 30 of its usual 55-60 clients. And those who did arrive were being dropped off as much as two hours late.