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Long way home for state riders Elderly and disabled delayed as transit program feels strain; Demand 'never anticipated'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Overwhelmed by unexpected demand, the state-subsidized program that provides rides to the elderly and disabled is leaving many people throughout the metropolitan area stranded, some of them waiting hours for service.

More than 1,700 such riders use Yellow Transportation's service every weekday, 300 riders a day more than last year.

"We never anticipated this type of demand," said Mark L. Joseph, owner of Yellow Transportation, which is paid $6.5 million a year by the Mass Transit Administration to operate the service. "Our three-year projections have been met in a year and a half, and now the system is strained."

The system's problems come as no surprise to frustrated riders such as Clara Leatherbury and Chuck Henry.

"I've waited as long as three hours for a pickup," said Leatherbury, a blind rider who runs a novelty shop in the Social Security Administration's Woodlawn headquarters. "I feel like we've been just shoveled around from pillar to post. You don't know from day to day when you will be picked up or if you will be picked up."

Henry, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said he was stranded for hours recently after a computer class on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. Calls to the MTA's radio dispatchers elicited only false hope: "It'll just be a few minutes" before a van arrives.

MTA and Yellow Transportation executives have begun a study aimed at making the area's "paratransit" service more efficient starting next year.

MTA officials also hope to steer disabled riders to the handicapped-accessible light rail and Metro systems, said spokesman Anthony Brown.

The service began 20 years ago in Baltimore. In 1990, after the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the publicly subsidized, curb-to-curb transportation service was expanded outside the Baltimore Beltway. With the help of federal funds, it operates in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and in the city.

Fare is $1.55

Riders must prove they are disabled and must register with the MTA, said spokesman Frank Fulton. Rides may be scheduled by calling an MTA dispatcher. Regardless of the destination, each trip costs $1.55 one way.

The service has been troubled by timing problems. Metro Access, which operated the state contract in 1996, had an on-time performance rate of 40 percent. That prompted MTA officials to sever the contract in 1997 and award it to Yellow Transportation, which had held it before Metro Access.

MTA administrator Ronald Freeland said Yellow Transportation is providing good service and has boosted the system's on-time rate to 95 percent, though many riders dispute that.

The recent statistics show the system is strained, Freeland said. Yellow Transportation's 100 vans and mini-buses set out to try to keep up with an expected 600,000 calls for rides this year, and at times has dispatched its cabs to handle the demand, said Joseph, owner of Yellow Transportation.

"I like the fact that we helped a bunch of people today get to kidney dialysis, get to the grocery store and live a normal life," Joseph said. "But there are significant challenges, problems and significant opportunities. We are excited about the growth, but we need to come to grips with the issues."

He blamed some of the delays on riders who failed to show up and what he sees as the growing cost-saving practice among private agencies and health maintenance organizations of diverting disabled riders into the subsidized transit system.

In addition, some national transportation experts who have studied the boom in paratransit think a recent surge in welfare-to-work programs has created a greater demand for the transportation service.

Other factors include drivers escorting disabled riders into homes and appointments, rather than leaving them on the street corner.

Soaring ridership

Nationally, paratransit ridership jumped from 20 million in 1990 to 36 million in 1995, according to federal Department of Transportation statistics.

Carol Denson, a University of Delaware professor who specializes in paratransit issues, is helping formulate national standards for paratransit that will include better coordination, contracting for and scheduling of rides for disabled riders.

"I think it's critical," Denson said. "We are looking at a transit-dependent population where transportation is the critical link to living in the least restrictive environment. There's room for a national model."

The problem is not unique to the Baltimore area. In Atlanta, increased demand for service has caused worries for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority officials, said Jerome C. Beasley, MARTA's director of bus transportation.

There, the financially strapped transit system in Fulton County is routing its disabled clients into the MARTA system, straining MARTA's paratransit service, which covers Atlanta's sprawling metropolitan area.

"The future is very difficult," Beasley said. "We fear it looks like [Fulton County] wants to get out of the business of providing that type of service. It would call for us to increase the service by an additional 25 vehicles."

In the Baltimore area, the problems have caught the attention of some of the caretakers of disabled riders, who share in the frustrations of their clients.

"It is very common that we have folks who are not picked up or who are very, very late in being picked up," said Suzin Bix Webster, coordinator of the Multiple Sclerosis Day program at Kernan Hospital in Baltimore. "When you call, you are on the phone waiting for 20 minutes on hold just to ask for a ride. It's not nice.

"Sometimes we have folks who live in an area where one client might live five blocks from another, and they are picked up by different cars," she said. "What a waste. It's a big dilemma for us."

'It's aggravating'

Riders are trying to cope.

"It's aggravating when you have to wait and it's getting dark outside," said Myrna Jones, who lives in Baltimore's Forest Park area and works in Woodlawn.

Dennis Fisher, a blind rider who lives in Northwest Baltimore, said he has lost faith because of false promises from MTA dispatchers.

"It's devastating. There's no trust. The customer doesn't have confidence in the system anymore, and that's a problem," he said.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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