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MTA Mobility service, down 500 drivers since 2019, reports worst on-time rate in 5 years

Tierra Fletcher maneuvered her power wheelchair up the ramp of a Maryland Transit Administration CityLink Green bus to a medical appointment.

The 37-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, used to ride the MTA’s Mobility paratransit service. But she switched this summer to the bus after a 9:30 p.m. ride home from a dinner on Liberty Road in July didn’t show — and a dispatcher told her the next wouldn’t come until 2:30 a.m.

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“They wanted me to sit outside all night and wait,” said Fletcher, whose Kirkwood House apartment is near Mount Pleasant Park in Northeast Baltimore, on the opposite side of the city.

The shared-shuttle service for people with disabilities reported its worst on-time rate in five years this summer and is struggling to meet rising demand with 500 fewer drivers than before the pandemic, the MTA said in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.

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The MTA and the private contractors that operate most service say they have taken steps to address the problem, which Disability Rights Maryland says is causing the service to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The advocacy group is calling for the state to devote more MTA drivers to Mobility to fix what it calls “dangerous” lapses in service.

The MTA drivers’ union, meanwhile, suggested the state rely less on outside contractors to fill Mobility positions. Running the service with unionized, state employees who receive better pay and benefits would aid hiring and retention, the union says.

William Fields, 65, who has cerebral palsy, waits for a scheduled a ride on a MobilityLink Paratransit van. Fields has had problems with MobilityLink vehicles showing up well after the scheduled time.
William Fields, 65, who has cerebral palsy, waits for a scheduled a ride on a MobilityLink Paratransit van. Fields has had problems with MobilityLink vehicles showing up well after the scheduled time. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Transdev and First Transit, which employ Mobility drivers for the state, are among the many companies in transportation and other business sectors nationwide that are advertising signing bonuses and other incentives as they confront widespread worker shortages amid the protracted coronavirus pandemic.

MTA chief Holly Arnold said the lags in service are the result of many Mobility operators leaving their jobs when ridership decreased during the pandemic and fewer drivers were needed. The MTA will require bidders to commit to higher wages, among other recruitment and retention initiatives, as part of the next contract to operate the service beginning in 2022, she said.

As riders ventured out more during the first six months of 2021 for in-person appointments and errands, Mobility’s on-time rate tumbled from 94% in January to 71.2% in June, the most recent month for which state data is available.

“Our ridership was very low, so we had enough operators to run the service,” Arnold said. “Ridership on Mobility is increasing over the past several months, and we expect it to continue to increase. But unfortunately, our operators just really haven’t come back.”

With fewer drivers on hand, the average Mobility ride in July arrived about 8 minutes after the 30-minute pickup window the MTA considers “on time,” according to the agency.

The service employed 485 drivers — nearly all contractors — as of August, down from 575 in August 2020 and 985 drivers in August 2019, the MTA told The Sun. It currently is about 180 drivers short of the staffing level needed for current service, according to the MTA, with just over 40 in training.

Driver shortages plagued the transportation industry nationwide before worsening during the pandemic. The Mobility issue mirrors a national school bus driver shortage, and Arnold noted the roughly 30 drivers — also contract workers — who called out Aug. 30 on the first day of Baltimore City public school classes, stranding about 300 students.

“It’s not unique to Maryland,” Arnold said. “It’s just something that, across the industry, is a big problem.”

Transdev lost 140 Mobility drivers after lowering staffing levels “due to significantly decreased demand” in March 2020, amid travel restrictions and other measures intended to curb the pandemic, said Mitun Seguin, a spokeswoman for Illinois-based company.

“We needed to reduce our staff,” Seguin wrote in an email. “When more regular service levels returned, many drivers chose not to return.”

Transdev now has 225 employees, including subcontractors, working for Mobility.

“Recruiting and hiring has been difficult, but we know that this is a problem shared by many other businesses and industries across the country,” Seguin said. “We are happy to report that we are now starting to see an increase in candidates applying for positions again. These are good jobs with competitive pay and benefits that we are still actively hiring for.”

First Transit spokesman Jay Brock said the COVID-19 pandemic “only exacerbated” the driver shortage. He did not respond to questions about First Transit’s staffing levels for Mobility, but highlighted the company’s recruitment incentives, such as a $2,000 signing bonus for new drivers.

“We will continue to partner with Maryland MTA and all their contractors to minimize the impact to passengers,” Brock wrote in an email.

Lauren Young, director of litigation at Disability Rights Maryland, said Mobility’s lack of service is causing patients to miss dialysis and other critical medical appointments, employees to miss work, and vulnerable people to be left waiting hours for rides. “It should be unacceptable,” she said.

“We think it’s a pretty clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by having such unreliable service, which also makes the service unsafe,” Young said. “People who use paratransit are doing that because they have no other option.”

The Mobility call center has had problems, too: Passengers were unable to schedule rides for two hours Friday because of a systems issue, the agency confirmed.

The MTA is not satisfied with the service level and is working to improve it, Arnold said.

“We’re not meeting the standards that we’ve set for Mobility,” Arnold said. “Even one instance of being late or a missed trip is not OK.”

Tierra Fletcher, 37, who has cerebral palsy, waits for a MTA bus on Loch Raven Boulevard. She has used MobilityLink Paratransit in the past, but finds the service unreliable.
Tierra Fletcher, 37, who has cerebral palsy, waits for a MTA bus on Loch Raven Boulevard. She has used MobilityLink Paratransit in the past, but finds the service unreliable. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Young, who has advocated and sued to improve Mobility service when it has lagged in the past, called for an emergency intervention — having more MTA drivers step in to help operate the service — and more state investment to fix long-term problems. She worries the state does not incentivize its contractors enough to invest in Mobility.

“We’ve been here before,” she said. “They need to have contingency plans. These are people’s lives and their civil rights.”

Mike McMillan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, said the union once represented about 50 MTA Mobility drivers. That has dwindled to about 15, with most of the jobs now performed by nonunion, private contractors who make less money, he said.

The staffing problems don’t extend to the drivers who are state employees, McMillan said.

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“It is the private-sector part where they are having an issue,” he said.

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When the dispatcher told Fletcher her ride home to Loch Raven Boulevard in July would be five hours late, Fletcher thought she’d misheard. At her request, the dispatcher checked to make sure the time was correct, putting her on hold for 10 minutes.

The final answer: “‘That’s all we can offer because we’re so short-staffed,’” Fletcher said she was told.

It was the last straw. Fletcher said Tuesday that she now only takes Mobility as a last resort. Even when she does, she’ll only use it to get to a destination, she said. She always takes a bus or finds another way to get home. She doesn’t want to risk being left stranded at night again.

“You can’t say, ‘Because you have a disability, you have to stay in the house,’” Fletcher said. “We have to be able to live and do things as normally as possible.”

William Fields, 68, hesitates to cross the street.

Fields, who lives in the Crossroads Apartments in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park, said he could use his power wheelchair to get to his podiatrist appointments and some other destinations. But it’s died on him before, and he’s leery of risking his wheelchair sputtering out in front of oncoming traffic.

“This chair’s been acting so funny lately,” he said. “I don’t want to do that if I don’t have to.”

For Fields, who has cerebral palsy, and others with disabilities, a late or no-show Mobility ride means “you’re basically stuck,” he said.

Harry Planter, a 92-year-old retired janitor and neighbor of Fletcher’s at Kirkwood House, decided he would quit using Mobility, too, after being told he would have to wait three hours for a previously scheduled ride home from a recent doctor’s visit.

The ride was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. After the shuttle finally picked him up and dropped off other riders, Planter said, he didn’t get home until nearly midnight.

“I ain’t never going to ride Mobility anymore,” he said. “They had no business doing that.”

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