Confirming longstanding complaints from riders, the Federal Transit Administration has found serious flaws in Maryland's system of public transportation for the disabled and told the state to improve its services.
In a report made available yesterday, the federal agency's Office of Civil Rights concluded that the Maryland Transit Administration's Mobility service too often leaves disabled riders waiting too long for trips.
To make matters worse, the report said, the MTA and contractor Yellow Van often fail to accept fault for delays and instead record riders who give up as "no-shows."
In addition, the report said the MTA and Yellow Van often overstate the timeliness of rides, which are considered late if they are more than 30 minutes overdue. While the MTA says that Mobility's on-time rate for pickups is as high as 95 percent, the federal review said it was actually about 76 percent.
The report also found problems at the dispatching end, where riders are too often put on hold by reservation agents and where MTA and Yellow Van schedulers fail to review runs to make them more efficient.
Based on its findings, the Office of Civil Rights has ordered the MTA - which by law must provide transportation for those unable to use regular transit - to produce quarterly reports showing how it is improving service.
The federal review followed a letter of complaint last year from the Maryland Disability Law Center noting more than 1,000 individual complaints about Mobility service, which makes about 2,500 trips a day for the approximately 14,000 residents who are eligible to use it. The system's shortcomings were also highlighted in an October 2000 article in The Sun.
Yesterday, disabled riders and their advocates said the report offered them a measure of vindication.
Law center legal director Lauren Young said it would wait to see whether the system improves before deciding whether to take legal action on behalf of riders.
The report "acknowledges the depth of problems we've been reporting for years, and demonstrates how poorly the system's managed," she said. "Now, the question is, can they turn it around?"
The federal review found some areas where Mobility service has improved in the past year.
The MTA has expanded from 19 reservation agents to 29, reducing the length of times that riders are put on hold, and it has raised pay for Yellow Van drivers to reduce turnover.
MTA spokeswoman Suzanne Bond said the agency welcomed the report and would do its best to follow its recommendations. "The MTA sees this as assistance from the federal government in identifying those areas where we can improve as an agency," she said.
But some riders and their advocates are not overly optimistic because many upgrades will require hiring more drivers and dispatchers, which will be difficult amid a state budget crunch. In addition, Young noted, Yellow Van may resist changes in its contract.
Several riders said yesterday that they had serious problems this week. Meryl Shechter's ride from Northeast Baltimore to Penn Station on Tuesday was 90 minutes late, making her miss a train to Washington and arrive late for a support group meeting in Rockville.
"They didn't even apologize and say, 'Sorry for the inconvenience,'" said Shechter, who is blind and relies on Mobility every day to get to her job in downtown Baltimore. "This happens all too often and needs to be addressed."