Disability advocates asked Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday to create an emergency response plan to fix problems with the MTA MobilityLink. Riders have been left stranded and on-time pickups have plummeted amid a contract change for the Maryland Transit Administration’s transportation service for people with disabilities.
Disability Rights Maryland and Consumers for Accessible Ride Services petitioned the Republican governor to contract with taxi services to provide rides, spend more money to upgrade the system and buy more vehicles to use on a temporary or emergency basis.
“The breakdown in service has devastating consequences,” the advocates wrote in a letter to Hogan. “People are missing life-sustaining treatments. In recent incidents, people have had to wait for two, three and more than four hours for their scheduled rides. … People are left outside, in inclement weather and in the dark at night, not knowing how long they will be waiting and hoping that their ride will come.”
The state is required to provide the transportation as a condition of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The service has seen a dramatic increase in riders since 2010, with about 7,000 trips on an average weekday. But as the agency began this spring implementing a new three-year, $299 million contract and overhauling its dispatch system, the amount of time drivers were late doubled. MTA officials said drivers were late in March for 22% of 160,000 trips, up from 11% in December.
A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor recognizes the critical role Mobility provides.
“The governor appreciates the letter and is fully confident in the steps being taken to address these concerns,” Shareese Churchill said.
Kevin B. Quinn Jr., the MTA administrator, said the percentage of on-time rides is steadily improving, maintaining an average of 82% over the past five days. In an April letter to advocates, Quinn said Mobility was about 200 drivers short of the staffing levels needed. The agency is leaning on its vendors, First Transit of Cincinnati and Transdev Services of Lombard, Ill., to each add 100 more drivers by summer.
Under the old contact, the MTA had three vendors. But the third, MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., switched from providing rides to running a new operations control center. Previously, each company provided its own dispatch services.
The new contract was approved in March by the state Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Hogan.
Quinn said after the agency told the companies in January about the switch from three driving vendors to two, many of the third vendor’s drivers quit. The MTA owns the Mobility vehicles; the companies staff them with drivers. Delivery of 100 new vehicles is scheduled for June 30.
“A lot of them started jumping ship,” he said at a Transit Choices Coalition meeting in Station North on Thursday morning.
The other vendors waited for the notice to proceed from the public works board before accelerating their hiring, but they have taken out billboards offering $3,000 signing bonuses for drivers, Quinn said. The campaign to hire new drivers also includes radio and internet advertising and job fairs. Classes are held every week to get the new employees ready. The MTA also hired a company to provide quality assurance for the first time.
“We’re on the upswing, and I feel confident in our path and our game plan to improve Mobility,” Quinn said.
First Transit and MV Transportation did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Sun. Transdev deferred to the MTA.
Riders qualify to use Mobility by going through a certification process that shows they would have trouble walking to and from transit stops, boarding a standard bus or standing a long time. The service is offered, like the MTA’s fixed-route buses, in Baltimore and parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. It is used to get riders to work, to appointments and anywhere else they want to go.
Lauren Young, director of litigation for Disability Rights Maryland, said the failures are a blatant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2017, the MTA settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the advocacy group on behalf of thousands of riders. The suit alleged Mobility was routinely late, left people seeking rides on hold for long periods, and denied passage or revoked access with little explanation.
The advocates have been documenting riders’ experiences, such as those who they say have reported becoming sick as they have been forced to wait outside in bad weather. Riders say they have become dehydrated and have been unable to eat, take medications or use the toilets. Some miss services from personal care aides whose shifts end by the time they can make it home, losing help with bathing, eating or transferring from a wheelchair, the advocates said.
Dispatch problems have also been widespread, advocates say. Riders hear busy signals, get disconnected and placed on hold for long periods. Other times, they’re told a ride is coming at specific time, but it does not show up.
Michael Gerlach, chairman of Consumers for Accessible Ride Services said the service is a “lifeline.”
“The persistent lateness of vehicles to pick up and drop off riders is causing major disruptions in their daily lives, as well as causing harm and unsafe conditions,” Gerlach said. “We are asking the governor to intercede.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.