TUKWILA — Each weekday afternoon, Christine Miles sits on the front steps of her Tukwila home and waits for a ride to work on a King County Metro Access bus, a paratransit service for people with disabilities.

In the evenings, she stands outside the Seward Park school where she teaches at an after-school program and waits again for the trip back home.

Miles has cerebral palsy, asthma and Meniere’s disease, which causes her vertigo and makes standing for long periods difficult. Sometimes she’d wait up to an hour after work before her ride showed up.

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“In the winter, when Access was an hour late, I almost fell over,” she said, explaining that the school had no bench where she could sit and still be visible to the bus driver coming to get her. “And if I fell, I couldn’t have gotten back up.”

King County riders who take Access have long complained of what they consider poor service. Users say they have waited an hour or longer, are sometimes taken on long and circuitous routes, and too often arrive late — or extremely early — to appointments.

“Every single day, every single trip is different. It’s predictably unpredictable,” Miles said.

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A 2017 audit of Access confirmed many of the complaints and suggested improvements, including ways to reduce costs.

Metro last month selected a new contractor for a five-year, $424 million deal to operate the program. MV Transportation will provide Access bus drivers and run the dispatch center, where riders call to schedule trips.

The contract will go into effect later this year. The stakes are high for people with disabilities who rely on Access to help them live independently, and for Metro, which has struggled to improve the paratransit service.

Christine Miles walks to board Metro’s Access paratransit bus in Tukwila. The bus takes her to her job in Seattle. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Christine Miles walks to board Metro’s Access paratransit bus in Tukwila. The bus takes her to her job in Seattle. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

2017 audit pointed to service shortfalls

Metro Access is a federally mandated program for people with disabilities who are unable to use fixed-route transit. Metro spent about $61 million to provide paratransit service for more 10,000 people in 2018, said Metro spokesperson Jeff Switzer.

Access had 373 buses and vans last year, and each individual trip cost Metro nearly $60 to provide. Riders pay $1.75 per trip. The agency also uses taxi companies for additional service.

Nationally, paratransit is more expensive to operate than fix-route buses because of the on-demand service provided.

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Since 2008, Metro has contracted out its paratransit operations to three companies: First Transit, which oversees the dispatch center; Transdev, which runs up to 75% of the buses; and Solid Ground, which operates the remaining vehicles. Solid Ground will continue as a subcontractor for MV Transportation.

Transdev declined to comment for this story and First Transit did not respond to inquiries. Mike Buchman, communications director for Solid Ground, said, “We look forward to working under the new contract with MV.”

Advocates in King County say they have raised concerns about Access for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until 2015 that the county began planning for an audit of the service, said Deputy King County Auditor Ben Thompson.

In June 2017, the county Auditor’s Office released a report that laid bare issues that contributed to low ridership and costly services.

Among them: limited payment options; lack of outreach to low-income populations, communities of color and people with limited English proficiency; inadequate oversight over contractors and ineffective punishments for poor service; excessively long trips and frequently late or early arrivals.

Also contributing to fewer people using Access: federal requirements that fixed-route transit systems must be accessible by having buses equipped with lifts and ramps, and drivers announcing stops.

The Access travel delays can be particularly difficult for users.

At least three times per week, Trisha York, of Seattle, receives dialysis for renal failure — a four-and-a-half-hour procedure that removes toxins from her blood. Her medical center cares for several patients on a tight schedule. Patients who miss an appointment have to reschedule, she said.

“If Access is transporting someone to a lifesaving treatment, like dialysis, there should be a priority to get them there on time so their health is not being put at risk,” said York, who has been late to appointments while using Access.

Advocates pushed for higher service standards

After the audit, Metro consulted with riders, disability-rights advocates and others to amend its request for contractors to bid on providing Access services.

“It became clear that we were not engaging with our customers in the way we needed to in order to reach some of the most disadvantaged populations in King County,” said Chris O’Claire, mobility division director for Metro.

MV agreed to higher service standards in the new contract. Advocates are hopeful those standards will improve service, but they had pushed even more changes.

For example, people requesting an Access ride are given a window of time in which the bus should arrive. Advocates supported contract language that would require riders to be picked up within that window 96% of the time, instead of the 92% Metro later approved.

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Advocates also wanted to enforce a pickup and drop-off window of 20 minutes instead of the 30 minutes under the new contract.

In addition, advocates wanted a stricter definition for when a ride is considered “missed.” Under the contract, a ride is not missed until a user waited more than 90 minutes for the bus — more than twice as long as what advocates proposed.

The definition is important because the contractor can be fined $100 for each missed ride and $35 for rides that are between 60 and 90 minutes late for pickup.

Susan Koppelman, Seattle Transit Riders Union’s Access campaign organizer, said she is concerned the changes won’t be enough to “transform the current culture” of Access and questions Metro’s reliance on contractors rather than operating the service in-house like its fixed-route bus system.

But she considers the changes an improvement to the former standards, which required only 90% of trips to be on time and did not enforce any standards for how long riders were on the bus or when they were dropped off.

Metro will also bring the management of customer complaints in-house. Previously, complaint reports were handled by the contractors, which could have a conflict of interest in alerting Metro to any problems, the 2017 audit said.

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“It was like a fox keeping track of hens in the henhouse,” Koppelman said.

Still, the new contract will not allow users to schedule same-day rides as advocates wanted. Riders must call by at least 5 p.m. the day before to request a ride, although the county is running a pilot program for same-day rides through ride-hailing and taxi services.

Losing bidders objected to Metro’s decision

The date for the new contract to go into effect got pushed back after the losing bidders challenged MV’s selection.

First Transit filed a letter of protest, complaining of “numerous irregularities” and “egregious bias in scoring” used to award the agreement.

The company said MV was chosen despite being the highest-cost bidder and omitting names of people in key personnel roles, among other issues. Transdev wrote a letter supporting First Transit’s protest.

Robert Angrisano, a retired executive at Microsoft whose daughter Anna, 37, uses paratransit services, was one of the community members who provided input to reviewers who scored the bids. He dismissed First Transit and Transdev’s claims.

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“It was theirs to lose,” he said about the contract. “They didn’t step up at the level we were asking.”

O’Claire, of Metro, noted MV’s web-based tool that lets riders book trips online rather than solely calling by phone.

“They have a strong understanding of what we need to meet customer service and service quality standards,” she said.

Metro denied First Transit’s protest and the company chose not to file a lawsuit, clearing the way for the agency to sign the contract with MV.

The new contract was set to start Aug. 1, but First Transit and Transdev now will stay on until Oct. 31.