From the seat of her electric wheelchair, Rochelle Harrod pressed the button of an elevator on the north side of Metro’s New Carrollton station.
She pressed it again.
No sign explained it was out of service. She looked around in vain for someone nearby to help.
Harrod, 33, was born with cerebral palsy. She is one of nearly 6,000 people with a disability whom Metro has tried to encourage to use its rail and bus services instead of its more costly door-to-door shuttle, known as MetroAccess.
But for those who use wheelchairs, canes or other aids, navigating the Metro system is often a daunting trip because of the chronically broken escalators and elevators, dilapidated station platforms, poor lighting and other aging parts that have become symbols of the troubled transit system.
“They scream that Metro is accessible, but too often it is a total inconvenience,” said Harrod, who lives in Hyattsville.
Try steering a 300-pound motorized wheelchair onto a crowded bus or train. Or walking with poor — or no — vision along a narrow, dimly lit station platform, using just a walking stick as a guide.
Even relying on MetroAccess is no guarantee. Disabled patrons often endure long waits to be picked up. On occasion, some drivers never show, patrons say.
“It’s always a crap shoot with Metro,” said Angel Love Miles, 30, also of Hyattsville, who was born with spina bifida and rides Metro buses and trains in her wheelchair. “It’s hard being a crip out here trying to get around.”
Ridership, costs double
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Metro must provide equal access to public transit for those with disabilities. Metro has a seven and a half year contract expiring in 2013, worth $540 million with MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., to run its paratransit service. MV hires 10 subcontractors to help it transport more than 7,000 customers a day for Metro.
Metro has been hit with a rising demand for the costly paratransit services, fueled by an aging population and more people with disabilities using the service, experts say.
At MetroAccess, ridership and costs have doubled in the past five years, from 1.2 million passengers transported at a cost of $52.3 million in fiscal 2006 to 2.4 million passengers transported at a cost of $103.7 million in fiscal 2011.
As nonprofits and other programs have slashed their budgets for services that once helped provide transportation for disabled customers, transit agencies such as Metro have filled the need. In the District, Medicaid cuts to transportation services pushed at least 1,200 people to find other services like MetroAccess. In Fairfax County, transportation service cuts affected about 1,300 riders, officials said.
“You’ve got baby boomers coming of age and economic changes, nationally and locally, where social programs that used to provide transportation don’t,” said Christian T. Kent, assistant general manager of Metro’s Access Services department. “They’ve shut their doors or downsized.”
It costs Metro about $40 to provide a MetroAccess ride. By comparison, it costs $3 to $4 per passenger to run bus and rail.
Metro has tried to increase its MetroAccess revenue. Riders used to pay a base fare of about $3 per trip, but in February Metro changed its policy and now charges based on the distance and time of day a customer travels and the fastest way to take the trip on bus and rail. Fares are a maximum of $7. But the new fare structure has been criticized for being unfair and confusing.
Metro has tried to scale down paratransit costs by encouraging those who are able to ride on the system’s buses and trains. Each rider’s situation is reviewed and Metro determines what type of service he or she can receive based on a person’s medical condition, an interview and their travel needs. Customers with disabilities who are deemed conditionally eligible can ride buses and trains for free.
In the last year, MetroAccess officials said they’ve trained about 5,800 disabled people on how to safely use bus and rail. The savings is roughly $1.6 million a year, according to Kent. Metro officials and board members said they hope to see the costs to operate MetroAccess stabilize as more disabled riders use the rails and buses. For three years, including projections for 2011, MetroAccess ridership has hovered around 2 million riders per year. The transit agency said customer satisfaction with MetroAccess is at its highest levels in six years, with fewer than five complaints per 1,000 trips requested.
“If you can get someone who is able to use the Metro on it, you’re saving money and you’re freeing up space on MetroAccess, which is overly stressed,” said Patrick Sheehan, who is blind and heads the Metro Accessibility Advisory Committee.
A recent commute