For many of the 10,000 riders who use King County Metro’s Access paratransit services, Oct. 26 could not come soon enough.

That’s when the county’s new five-year, $424 million contract to operate the buses and run the dispatch center began. The private company MV Transportation, which took on 90% of workers from the previous contractors, now provides Access bus drivers and runs the dispatch center, where riders with disabilities call to schedule trips.

The social services nonprofit Solid Ground subcontracts with MV to provide some trips.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Access riders had long complained of what they considered poor service under the previous contract, and a 2017 audit of the program confirmed many of the concerns.

Now, riders said they are looking forward to higher, enforced standards outlined in the new agreement, such as narrowed pickup windows and trip times that are more comparable to fixed-route buses.

Janine Bertram said she’s eager to see MV “do it correctly. Get people there on time, not hours before an appointment and driven all around for a very long time.”

Advertising

But key issues remain.

Despite the new contract, riders still can’t schedule trips online; instead, they must phone into a call center. Metro still hasn’t said how it would provide equitable service by race, income and English language proficiency.

And with Tuesday’s election, a much bigger issue has emerged with the approval of Initiative 976, which cuts car-tab taxes and fees to $30. King County Metro expected to get $12.2 million in funding for Access between 2020 and 2021 from a state account funded by car-tab fees that now have been slashed. The impacts would be determined by the Legislature.

The state funding represents about 9% of the annual budget for Access.

“If suddenly we don’t have as much money for RapidRide lines or bus service, we could make that up in a ballot measure next year, but I don’t know whether that would cover Access,” said Katie Wilson, of the Transit Riders Union. So, riders with disabilities could become “the hardest hit by that initiative passing,” Wilson said.

Access is a federally mandated program. Even with funding cuts, Metro is obligated to provide transportation to elders and people with disabilities who need transportation.

“Metro remains committed to the Access program — at this point, we are unsure of how to best address the needs,” Metro spokesperson Torie Rynning said by email.

Advertising

While officials are assessing the impacts of I-976 and how to respond, Access riders and advocates, after years of complaining about poor service, are watching how the new contractor performs.

Tracking late and long trips

Under the new contract, MV is responsible for tracking trips that are considered excessively late, meaning a rider waited longer than 60 minutes for a driver to show up, and trips that are considered missed, meaning a rider waited more than 90 minutes for the bus.

MV can be fined $100 for each missed ride and $35 for rides that are between 60 and 90 minutes late for pickup.

But less than a week into the new contract, rider Lynn Sereda said she waited 75 minutes and rider Kibibi Monie said she waited 90 minutes for their Access rides home before Metro sent a wheelchair-accessible taxi.

The delay in service was due to “human error,” said Metro spokesman Travis Shofner.

“The new contractor is reviewing protocols to ensure that this issue will not be repeated and dispatch staff will review the incident at their next safety meeting,” he said.

Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, transit agencies must provide paratransit services that are “comparable to the level of service provided to individuals without disabilities who use the fixed route system.”

To Metro, that generally means trips on paratransit are not supposed to exceed more than 15 minutes of the amount of time it would take to transport by fixed-route buses.

Under the previous contract, 90% of trips needed to be made “on time,” which now spans a 30-minute window, and Metro did not enforce any standards for how long riders were on the bus. Now, MV has agreed to pick up and drop riders off within that on-time window 92% of the time and meet trip-length demands 96% of the time, or face penalties.

Chris O’Claire, mobility division director for Metro, said trips can become longer than expected because of traffic collisions, construction work and weather-related slowdowns.

Under the new contract, Metro will only monitor the causes for late and long trips on a “macro-level,” and “research details on specific trips when we receive a complaint,” Shofner said.

Delivering on delayed requests

Despite Metro’s new Access contract with MV, users still do not have the ability to schedule same-day rides or schedule rides online. Riders must call by at least 5 p.m. the day before to request transportation.

Advertising

Metro announced in 2017 that “new online scheduling features” were planned to be implemented later that year. Shofner said online scheduling was delayed because Metro wanted to separate customers using Access from the other agencies providing transportation services sharing the scheduling platform, and make the platform more secure against “cybersecurity threats” — tasks that took longer to address than anticipated.

Online scheduling is now expected to be available “sometime in 2020,” O’Claire said.

Advocates have also requested proof that Metro plans to address disparities in equity in providing service.

A 2017 audit of Access found that “certain populations — particularly people with limited English proficiency” were not being adequately served. At the time, Metro said “it is providing equitable services, because it assists people with disabilities and mirrors the fixed-route service area.”

However, the audit found that insufficient outreach to people with limited English language proficiency “likely result in underuse of the Access program by people that would otherwise qualify for and benefit from the service.”

An equity impact review has been drafted and is now undergoing peer and management review, Shofner said, before being incorporated into MV’s contract.