A blistering audit of King County’s paratransit service for the disabled reveals a shocking lack of oversight and poor performance. People depending on this service and taxpayers deserve much better.
NOW we know one of the worst places to spend $1.75 in King County — buying a ride on the county’s dysfunctional Access paratransit system for the disabled.
A shocking county audit released this week lists poor performance, oversight failures and persistent waste of taxpayer dollars since 2008.
While Access provides an essential service extending transit to those who cannot use regular buses, it’s become one of the nation’s most expensive and least efficient paratransit systems.
County Executive Dow Constantine was appropriately contrite in his response to the audit and pledged fixes, including a smarter mix of taxis and vans. He vowed to improve oversight when new contracts are issued for service beginning next year.
County officials should also apologize to Access riders who suffered from poor performance — stuck on meandering trips, and left unsure if they’d arrive too early or too late for appointments. Nearly half the riders in a customer survey said they avoid Access because of poor service.
This is also a reminder to taxpayers to scrutinize future funding requests.
Inefficiency and waste occurred through 2014 and 2015 as the county was cutting overall bus service and asking for tax increases to sustain transit service.
Meanwhile, it was giving performance bonuses to paratransit vendors who weren’t meeting standards and collecting only half the penalty payments vendors owed for missing trips. It also bought expensive software that went unused, according to the audit.
Those lapses didn’t strain the transit budget, but failure to control overall Access costs did: costs rose to $61 million last year, or 9 percent of county transit spending.
The audit rejected the county’s defense that local operating costs are high. It’s also expensive in Orange County, Calif., yet paratransit contractors there receive $43 per service hour compared to $59 in King County.
Auditors raised concerns in 2009, shortly after the current contracts began. They again flagged concerns last December, some of which remain “unresolved.”
Taxpayers got off easy compared to some of the folks riding Access vans. One anecdote in the audit told of a person’s ride from Kenmore to Kirkland, a 10-mile trip that might take 19 minutes to drive.
Instead, the van looped around the north end of Lake Washington, through Lake Forest Park, to get another passenger in Ballard, then reached Kirkland via state Highway 520. The trip stretched 30 miles and took 61 minutes.
It’s good the county audited itself, called out deficiencies and pledged improvements. The $61 million question, though, is why it took so long.