Transit turnaround

December 29, 2005

A 9-year-old boy with learning disabilities enrolled in a special school. A 57-year-old man with a kidney dialysis appointment. A 35-year-old disabled woman headed to work. These are typical people helped each day by the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility paratransit service. For them, Mobility's fleet of shuttles and sedans is literally a lifeline, a way to get to school and to jobs, the means to an independent life and to receive vital health care.

Yet for many years, Mobility service has been nothing short of miserable. Riders were left stranded. Drivers either failed to show or were extremely late. Complaints mounted, and the MTA was criticized for not following Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. MTA officials and its contractor pointed fingers at each other and kept promising improvements that never happened. Adding insult to injury, it was not uncommon for drivers to claim falsely that their passengers were no-shows when they were the ones at fault.

With that in mind, the Maryland Disability Law Center's decision to settle its 2-year-old federal lawsuit against the MTA over the paratransit operation is significant. Mobility has obviously made some major improvements over the past year. Maryland Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan says complaints are down and on-time performance is up. And anecdotal evidence from disabled riders backs him up.

The agreement announced this week doesn't take the MTA off the hot seat. Mobility's performance will still be monitored by an independent consultant, and advocates for the disabled could return to court. But the outlook is encouraging. This isn't a problem Mr. Flanagan created - Mobility was a disaster long before the Ehrlich administration took office - but it could wind up being one he solved.

Exactly how this good fortune came about is open to debate. The lawsuit may have brought the needed pressure - as did the years of publicity over Mobility's failures. MTA is clearly doing a better job of holding its contractors accountable than it did in the past. And the fact that the agency now handles dispatch and control duties is helpful, too. But advocates say the most critical improvement may be the millions of dollars more the state is spending on the system. That investment includes at least 100 new vehicles and the hiring of dozens of new employees. Now, if only the MTA's regular transit lines could attract that kind of support.

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