How often do you get off the subway and find that there is no working elevator or escalator to get you out of the station? How often have you not been able to hear stop announcements on a subway car or a city bus? How often do missing light bulbs in subway stations make it impossible for you to see well enough to feel safe? These are just a few of the reasons that people with disabilities, like it or not, rely on paratransit services rather than conventional public transportation.
In the Washington, D.C. area, paratransit services just got more expensive. Starting today, fares for MetroAccess, which is operated by the Washington Area Mass Transit Authority, will more than double. Yesterday’s fares of $3 each way will rise to as much as $7 each way per trip!
How WMATA’s board justifies the huge increase in fares is mind-boggling. They point to their huge deficit, growing demand for services, and sky-rocketing costs; the agency says every MetroAccess trip costs $40. And while they have promised service and safety system improvements to people with disabilities, such as adding tactile warning strips to the edges of every MetroRail platform and fixing broken elevators, many promised improvements have remained on WMATA’s to-do list for years.
WMATA’s new formula for computing MetroAccess fares seems to many riders more like price gauging than spreading the burden of balancing WMATA’s books in any equitable kind of way. Up until now, the $3 fare was computed by doubling the regular fare of $1.50 for riding a MetroBus, which conforms with the Americans with Disabilities Act regulations for paratransit. The new rates are computed by doubling the cost of riding the most expensive form of public transportation, the subway, and, yes, adding in the extra charges riders pay to use the subway during rush hour. There is a cap on the product of doubling the subway fare: It’s $7.00 per trip!
“We’re all sharing the pain,” WMATA representatives told a roomful of blind and visually impaired Marylanders last fall. Actually that’s not true. People with disabilities, who are underemployed and have less income, are shouldering more of the pain; the fare increase is 280 percent last June’s price of $2.50.
WMATA fails to take into consideration the 13.6% unemployment rate for people with disabilities, or the fact that many riders who rely on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits (around $675 a month ) have not received a cost-of-living increase in more than two years. Many working people with disabilities who rely on MetroAccess for their daily commute are wondering how in the world they will manage to pay $70 each week for trips that used to cost $30! Will they have to give up their jobs simply because they can’t afford to get to work?
The nearly 30,000 people with disabilities in the Washington area are also quick to point out that MetroAccess is neither efficient or even a comfortable way to travel. The vans carry six or more people at one time, and the passengers (many of whom use service animals) are squished into noisy cabins with nearly non-existent suspension. Fellow passengers are sometimes even going in exactly the opposite direction, which can make a ride which could have taken only a few minutes last for hours. Rides are seldom on time, and wherever people with disabilities gather, one is bound to hear accounts of missed appointments and waits for MetroAccess that seemed interminable.
On top of that, customers who are even slightly more than five minutes late for a scheduled pick-up can be dismissed as no-shows. A new pick-up can be scheduled, sure, but it might take two and a half hours.
On the other hand, for many who can’t drive or safely use conventional public transit, MetroAccess, despite its shortcomings, has been a lifeline. What a shame that even this service — as frustratingly inefficient as it often is — has now been priced outside the means of many people with disabilities. WMATA seems to be making a statement loud and clear about how it feels about the fare hike, and about Washington’s disabled population: Don’t expect improvements in system-wide service or safety any time soon; pay proportionately more than any of our other customers for substandard service and if you don’t like it, then stay home!