King County Metro’s Access paratransit program has made “significant progress” in efforts to lower costs, strengthen the quality of service and increase equitable access, but it still has more work to do, a new report from the King County Auditor’s Office says.
Auditors said Metro has made or is developing plans to address some of the issues Access riders said had contributed to poor service, including long waits for the bus pickups, overly long trips, and late or extremely early arrivals at destinations.
A 2017 audit of Access confirmed many of the complaints and suggested improvements. However, several proposals in that audit have not yet been implemented.
Access is a federally mandated program for people with disabilities who are unable to use fixed-route transit.
When Metro entered into a new five-year, $424 million contract with MV Transportation to operate the Access buses and run the dispatch center last fall, the private company agreed to adhere to higher, enforced standards such as narrowed pickup windows and trip times that are more comparable to fixed-route buses.
Metro has since defined excessively long trips as those that run 15 minutes or longer than the time it would take to get between destinations on a fixed-route bus.
However, Metro needs to hold MV accountable for its performance through a contract management plan, which is set to begin this month, auditors said. Metro also needs to review incentives and punishments outlined in the contract to encourage compliance with standards and gauge their effectiveness.
Some efforts that were set to begin in April, such as picking members of an Access advisory committee, are being postponed in accordance with social distancing recommendations due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Metro said a final assessment of a study examining whether the service is equitably provided was delayed due to the coronavirus. In November, Metro said the study had been drafted and was undergoing peer and management review. During that process, some information needed to be reworked before being sent to the auditor.
Metro also still needs to roll out more options for riders to pay fares, as recommended in the earlier audit. Currently, riders can pay only with cash or a monthly pass. An online payment tool is scheduled to be available in July.
The new audit highlighted several improvements Metro has completed, including increasing language options for riders who don’t speak English proficiently when they call to schedule trips, and bringing a customer service center for complaints or concerns into Metro’s operations.
The customer service center was operated by previous Assess contractors, who could have a conflict of interest in alerting Metro to any problems, the 2017 audit said.
Access ridership has dropped 74% since early March due to the coronavirus outbreak, Metro said.
“The Access team is focused on how we can best serve our riders in the immediate days ahead, and we aren’t speculating as to what adjustments will be appropriate in the future,” said Torie Rynning, a spokeswoman for Metro. “No matter how our ridership is impacted, we will still continue to provide safe, reliable paratransit service.”