The Maryland Transit Administration agreed to overhaul its MTA Mobility/Paratransit Service to settle a federal lawsuit contending that the service was unreliable and inaccessible to some riders with disabilities.
Among other steps, the MTA will spend up to $160,000 to hire independent consultants to review the service over the next three years and make faster decisions on whether someone is qualified to use it.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2015 on behalf of thousands of riders with disabilities who alleged the service was plagued by routine lateness in picking up and dropping off riders with serious illnesses and other disabilities for critical medical appointments.
Riders with disabilities were often put on hold for long periods of time when calling to make appointments, and some were denied service or had their access revoked with little explanation, according to the suit filed in Baltimore's federal court by the AARP Foundation Litigation and the Maryland Disability Law Center, now known as Disability Rights Maryland.
Katheryn Anderson, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said the settlement will make access to the Mobility system fairer and "more like the regular fixed-route service."
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that people with disabilities be accommodated with paratransit options if their disabilities prevent them from using other mass-transit options.
Anderson praised the MTA's willingness to work on improvements and said the agency already has started on changes.
"There's definitely some room for improvement, but MTA's new administration was interested in fixing the problems and making commitments to getting to work on the problems," she said.
"From day one, the Hogan Administration has been focused on delivering better customer service for our MTA Mobility customers," Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said in an emailed statement. "We are making great strides with: improved telephone reservations, a more streamlined certification system and better on-time performance. We welcome the continued dialogue and partnership to improve the service for our mobility customers."
Under the terms of Monday's settlement, announced Tuesday by Disability Rights Maryland and the AARP, the independent consultants will review the Mobility service's certification process and call-center operations, and issue recommendations for improvements.
The MTA will adopt quality-assurance measures for deciding on eligibility for the program, including processing applications within 10 days of receiving them, "with limited exceptions." It also will review all denials of service and temporary eligibility.
New applicants for paratransit eligibility who do not receive a response within three weeks will be allowed to use the service until a decision is made, the settlement said. Applications will include information on this policy, known as "presumptive eligibility."
Applicants denied service will be allowed to submit more information to have their eligibility reconsidered, the settlement said. The agency will provide eligibility assessments on the same day it calls applicants to MTA offices for an interview, the settlement said.
The MTA has altered its appeal forms and notices to conform to due-process protections and agreed to allow applicants to use non-lawyer advocates to appeal ineligibility decisions, the settlement said.
The lawsuit documented numerous instances of users being put on hold when scheduling rides, or waiting for hours for an MTA vehicle to arrive.
Danielle Phelps, a 40-year-old Towson resident who uses a wheelchair, uses the MTA Mobility service to get to work and said she was often late, though she said her boss has been understanding.
"It's hard to plan your life when you don't know what time your transportation's going to get there, thinking you're giving yourself enough time and the system enough time," she said.
Phelps, one of the four named plaintiffs, said one time she was placed on hold for 48 minutes, then waited for her ride for more than two hours. While trying to cancel that late ride, she got a busy signal 10 times before the call was connected. She was then put on hold for another 30 minutes until her cellphone battery died, she said, and was never able to cancel her ride.
She said she became frustrated with the delays and wanted to speak up on behalf of herself and the other riders using the system, some of whom are nonverbal.
"I'm fortunate where I can get in and out of a regular car, but a lot of people can't," Phelps said. "A lot of people on the bus were in electric wheelchairs or were nonverbal, so if I was experiencing that, they were experiencing it and had no other options."
The key part of the settlement was providing experts who will review the MTA's operations and suggest improvements over the next three years, Anderson said.
"That process is going to go a long way for riders to see continued improvements and help instill some long-term improvements for drivers who have seen some varied service over the last decade," she said.
Hank Greenberg, state director of AARP Maryland, said the settlement will help the group's members stay active and independent as they age. AARP Foundation Litigation, a separate entity, was a party to the lawsuit.
"If you've ever missed an appointment because you were waiting hours on the phone to get a ride, you'll know why this is so important," Greenberg said. "Not everyone has a friend or family member for these life needs."