Transit officials said they are working to resolve issues with the state’s paratransit program in the wake of a federal investigation that found the MobilityLink service did not comply with federal law.
The investigation found concerns with the timely pick-up and drop-off of riders as well as long call center waits. Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold acknowledged issues with the system but said the agency has been working to improve service.
“Our current on-time performance is meeting or exceeding our goal every month,” said Arnold. “So, we recognize that, and we want to continue to move forward and work on improvement but we were just surprised to receive the letter given where we are, in terms of our current performance.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, in a June 29 letter, notified the Maryland Transit Administration that its paratransit service known as MobilityLink was not in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“MTA’s paratransit service fails to provide service that is ‘comparable to the level of designated public transportation services provided to individuals without disabilities using such a system,” wrote U.S. Attorney for Maryland Erek L. Barron and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane E. Andersen in a June 29 letter obtained by Maryland Matters.
“MobilityLink has capacity constraints that significantly limit the availability of service to ADA paratransit eligible persons” in violation of federal law, according to the 11-page letter.
Violations included “a significant number of untimely pickups and drop-offs and lengthy waits for telephone service.”
Barron and Anderson, while noting the state’s cooperation in the investigation, set a 14-day deadline for the state to respond. Should the state opt to not cooperate in resolving the issues found in the report, the Department of Justice could file a federal lawsuit against the system.
Arnold said the agency did provide a written response. She declined to release the letter citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.
“Essentially we just said that we would like to work with them on this,” said Arnold.
Federal law requires that public transportation systems operate in a way that does not discriminate against people with disabilities.
In Maryland, the MobilityLink paratransit system operates in areas of Baltimore City and Baltimore County as well as parts of Anne Arundel County that are located inside I-695. It also includes areas in Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties that are within three-quarters of a mile from local bus, light rail or Metro services.
The shared ride service allows riders who are “unable to get to a bus stop, wait unassisted at a stop or station or board or ride a bus or train by themselves” to schedule door-to-door pick-up and drop off, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore did not provide comment for this story.
It is unclear what sparked the investigation that began in 2021. The letter sent to the Maryland Transit Administration notes that investigators received complaints about the paratransit system.
The findings are similar to those in a Department of Justice report on the New York City Transit Authority’s paratransit services released earlier this year.
The federal agency is also investigating similar complaints in Detroit and St. Louis. Barron’s office, in the letter to Maryland transit officials, called for the agency to increase the number of drivers and available vehicles to improve on-time performance.
The letter also calls for increased call center staffing; annual reviews of ridership demand; internal reviews of system performance to eliminate discriminatory constraints on use of the service; and better data reporting related to federal oversight.
Investigators determined that untimely pickups and drop-offs by MobilityLink system imposed capacity constraints on riders that could discourage use of the system.
“MTA’s own reported on-time performance reveals an operational pattern or practice that significantly limits the availability of service to ADA paratransit eligible persons,” according to the letter.
In some cases late pick-ups result in missed doctor’s appointments, religious services or plans with friends. It also can mean additional costs incurred or riders left in unsafe conditions.
In one case, investigators reported that a rider who was scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. pick-up was notified at 8:55 p.m. that she would not be picked up until 2:37 a.m. — more than five hours after an event she was attending was scheduled to end.
The woman was able to secure a ride with a friend but was forced to leave her wheelchair at the venue and pick it up the next day.
The investigation also determined that nearly 15% of MobilityLink drop offs occurred after a scheduled appointment time. The service only satisfied federal guidance of no more than 30 minutes early for an appointment 59.6% of the time.
The service’s call center also failed, according to investigators.
The call center allows riders to schedule trips and check the status of a ride.
An examination of calls between Sept. 30, 2022 and Nov. 30, 2022 found 33% of callers experienced wait times in excess of three minutes. MTA’s performance standard sets a goal of answering 90% of calls within 3 minutes.
Federal investigators called the MTA’s standard “lax compared to” other similar operations. Paratransit services in New York City set goals of answering 95% of calls within 3 minutes.
Afternoon hours were the worst, according to the report. Investigators noted that “on a majority of days in November, callers experienced wait times over 10 minutes.” The longest wait time in November was nearly 34 minutes.
The number of callers who simply gave up increased after 11:30 a.m., according to the report.
Investigators noted “poor on-time pickup performance since at least September 2018, when only 87.4% of pickups were on time.” By April 2019, on-time pickups fell to 74%. That translated to 46,500 late pick-ups that month alone.
In that year, advocates complained to then-Gov. Larry Hogan (R) about changes made to the MobilityLink system including downsizing from three vendors to two. At the time it was touted as a way to improve service. Instead, advocates said the changes left riders stranded for hours.
Josh Wolf, director of mobility services for the Maryland Transit Administration, said the 2019 contract incentivized contractors to “work with the least amount of staff to make the most amount of money.”
“We shifted and we have a first in the nation model, where we actually pay by the full time equivalent hour which basically incentivizes them to be fully staffed and then also ensures that they have the level of comfort to know that we’re not going to dramatically reduce staff and cause them to be you know, held with extra staff that they don’t have a way to pay for,” said Wolf.
Two years earlier, the state settled a lawsuit over long telephone wait times and the process for qualifying riders for the service.
Last year, Disability Rights Maryland began posting videos featuring MobilityLink riders discussing challenges in using the system. Meghan Marsh, interim director of Disability Rights Maryland, did not respond to a request for comment.
Arnold said many of the issues raised by the letter were already being addressed when Barron’s office sent its letter.
Last year, MTA implemented a new three-year contract, with two one-year renewals, for three companies to provide MobilityLink services. The new deal included both incumbent vendors from 2019. It also rehired a third vendor that had been cut that year. The contract, which also increased driver’s wages, was approved by the Board of Public Works in February 2022.
The agency says it now has more than 500 vehicles on the road that recently handled more than 168,000 trips in one month. That figure is up from nearly 121,000 trips in June of 2022, according to Wolf.
The system reported a 94.4% on-time performance in January, according to data published on the Maryland Transit Administration’s website.
Between February and June, the service reported 94% on-time performance or better, according to additional data provided in an email from a MTA spokesperson.
Ridership, which dropped off sharply at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has recovered but remains below historic high points.
Issues with timely pick-ups eased during the pandemic as ridership fell from more than 175,000 in February 2020 to a low of 43,477 in April 2020.
Between February 2021 and June 2022, investigators judged MobilityLink’s performance to be “poor.” In September 2021, on-time pick-ups fell to 59%, resulting in late service for 38,600 riders, according to Barron’s letter.
“I think it’s really important to note that, you know, MTA is not unique in having performance issues with paratransit,” said Arnold. “We are actually, I think, one of the leaders now in terms of the way we’ve restructured our contracts to ensure on time performance and meeting our goals for on time performance.”
This article was originally published on MarylandMatters.org and is republished with permission.