A paratransit pickle for MARTA

MARTA should implement genuine solutions to the problems of its paratransit service, MARTA Mobility. Neither the current privatization plan nor the in-house status quo are acceptable.

In 2002, a federal court ordered MARTA to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires all public transit to be genuinely accessible to riders with disabilities, with the objective of fostering self-reliance.

For many with disabilities, public transit is a vital link to independent living. As the court found, many individuals with disabilities “must rely upon MARTA for their daily transportation needs if they are to live active lives in the community, to work and pay taxes and avoid complete dependency upon [public assistance] or private charity.”

The court held that MARTA had failed to provide the required level of service to its riders with disabilities. It entered an injunction against MARTA to “ensure that competing priorities do not overwhelm MARTA’s obligation to comply with the ADA.”

The court’s concern that competing priorities would distract MARTA from its duties to riders with disabilities proved to be prescient. The subsequent years have demonstrated that MARTA has allowed its concern about pleasing other constituencies to trump its obligations under the ADA.

One group of passengers whom MARTA has egregiously failed are those who use MARTA Mobility. The paratransit system is only available to persons whose disabilities make it difficult or impossible for them to use the fixed-route system.

In 2002, the court found MARTA provided unacceptably poor paratransit service. The system’s performance has gone downhill since then. In recent years, one out of every 4 or 5 trips reserved on MARTA Mobility has either run late or not run at all. Such unreliable service imposes heavy costs. It caused Professor Sandra Owen, a paraplegic, to suffer frostbite while waiting in severe cold for a ride home from work.

Many parents of adults with developmental disabilities gave up on using Mobility to get their children to work or training after finding the system not only failed to make timely pickups but sometimes left their children stranded at the wrong location.

For many years MARTA neglected its paratransit system, choosing, instead, to prioritize its higher visibility services. It ignored recommendations of the Federal Transit Administration. It was only when MARTA was threatened with contempt of court that it focused on addressing Mobility’s poor performance.

Instead of pursuing industry “best practices” to improve service, MARTA followed a recommendation from a 2012 audit by business management consultant KPMG. The audit’s recommendations were designed to cut costs rather than to improve paratransit services. The cost-saving strategy it suggested was privatization.

Some of the troubling features of MARTA’s proposed privatization plan are:

  • The injunction requires MARTA to make “every effort” to maintain on-time performance in MARTA Mobility, but the plan described in MARTA’s request for proposals only imposes penalties when a vendor’s performance falls below 85 percent — and these penalties are pitifully small.
  • The plan incorporates safety standards that are significantly below industry norms.
  • The plan inexplicably keeps reservation services in-house, even though seamless coordination with reservations is essential to good performance — and even though the current performance of Mobility reservations falls far below the standards required by the injunction.

MARTA is once again according greater priority to saving money – and perhaps to currying favor with the General Assembly – than to providing legally adequate paratransit services. Ironically, the plan seems likely to be expensive in the long run.

Should MARTA continue to operate Mobility in house? Unless real changes are made, riders will continue to endure the same inadequate performance levels as in recent years. Needed changes include:

  • Updating the system’s severely outdated technology and scheduling software.
  • Providing the funding needed to provide sufficient staffing and equipment to meet anticipated demand.
  • Utilizing industry “best practices,” including those recommended by the FTA.
  • Labor practices that enable Mobility operators to receive pay commensurate with the responsibility they bear for many medically fragile people, but also stringently enforce reasonable attendance and job performance expectations.

Providing good paratransit service:

It’s required by law.

It’s the right thing to do.

And it’s an investment in our community that will yield far more than it costs.

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