The state and lawyers for people with disabilities are expected to announce today a settlement in a lawsuit filed two years ago to address chronic problems with the state's transit service for disabled riders.
The agreement was reached after significant improvements in that service, called Mobility and run by the Maryland Transit Administration.
The service's on-time rate has increased from 77 percent to 90 percent, and customer complaints have been cut in half, according to state officials.
"The proof's in the pudding, and so far it's tasting better," said Lauren Young, litigation director at the Maryland Disability Law Center, which filed the lawsuit along with the firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy in 2003 on behalf of disabled riders.
The lawsuit alleged that the paratransit system was inferior to public transportation for people without disabilities. The suit said customers were regularly left waiting for rides that showed up late or not at all and were subjected to unreasonably long rides and telephone-hold times.
State Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a defendant in the case, acknowledged in a 2003 Sun op-ed piece that Mobility was "almost completely dysfunctional," and said he has made it a personal priority to fix it. Today, he said, "we're getting a system that allows the disabled to fully participate in work ... and in society."
Mobility serves at least 12,300 people, providing them with nearly 3,000 rides a day, primarily to medical appointments and jobs, state officials said.
Under the settlement, subject to a fairness hearing Jan. 26:
The state will hire a consultant agreed on by both parties to report on the system's performance for 12 to 18 months and recommend service improvements. After that, riders will still be able to ask the consultant to investigate concerns.
A group of 15 disabled riders will meet regularly with the MTA and the consultant to review recommendations, resolve disputes and negotiate.
The U.S. District Court for Maryland will have the power to enforce the terms of the settlement and will continue to be involved in the case as needed, primarily through federal mediation. The parties have been meeting with a federal mediator working on a settlement for about a year and a half.
In addition, the state has agreed to continue providing paratransit service for the next five years in cases where changes in bus routes have technically made a customer or location ineligible.
Since the lawsuit was filed, lawyers for the riders say, the state has purchased new vehicles, hired additional staff, installed new technology in vehicles and developed a call center run by MTA rather than a contractor.
The state used to contract with only one company, Yellow Transportation Inc., but under a reorganization launched in July 2004, now also uses a second contractor, MV Transportation.
State officials say the competition has ensured better service. They plan to re-bid the contracts in the coming months to secure better benefits for drivers in an attempt to curb high driver turnover.
The settlement will run for four years or for nine months after the final transition to new paratransit contracts, whichever comes first.
The state has agreed not to change contractors during the winter through 2008, to ensure that passengers won't be left stranded outside in the cold during a transition period.
Among other reforms Flanagan said the state has made: Contractors are no longer allowed to bring outside passengers on trips with MTA-certified passengers, a practice that state officials said resulted in inefficient scheduling and frequent lateness.
The vehicles, mostly vans, are equipped with an electronic device that enables drivers to signal when they arrive, and when customers step aboard. The vehicles also have an "automatic vehicle locator" to ensure that drivers are where they say they are, as well as Global Positioning System technology to give drivers more accurate directions.
Nextel phones were distributed to some of Mobility's busiest destinations, such as dialysis centers and hospitals, enabling better communication with drivers and the reservation center.
Room to improve
Both parties agree there is room for improvement.
Young said MTA needs to continue to work to see that no one is left stranded. She said telephone hold times still can be unreasonably long.
Mary Ella Smith, a named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit, said she think it's unfair that a driver can be up to 30 minutes late and still be considered "on time," while passengers can only be five minutes late for a ride before the driver can leave. She said passengers, who pay $1.85 per ride, have to set a return time in advance, but sometimes it's hard to predict when they'll be finished with medical appointments.
Smith, 64, primarily uses Mobility to get to doctor's appointments for her many medical conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and a cyst in her spine.