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MTA Says Paratransit Improving — Despite Dept. of Justice Findings

The DOJ released a report in the fall that knocked Access-A-Ride for untimely drop-offs and excessive travel times. Now, transit officials say customer satisfaction is up.

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MTA head Janno Lieber touted AAR improvements outside the agency’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, Feb. 8, 2023.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

MTA officials on Wednesday touted budding improvements in the agency’s paratransit operations — just a few months after the Department of Justice flagged the agency’s Access-A-Ride service for violating federal disability law.

Citing a January survey, transit officials noted customer satisfaction among paratransit users whose disabilities prevent them from using buses or subways has increased to 76%. That’s up more than 30% since the fall of 2021, when THE CITY reported that service reliability had sunk to its lowest point in years as providers dealt with driver shortages and increased traffic citywide.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Chris Pangilinan, vice president of paratransit at the MTA. “And of course, we still have a ways to go.”

The MTA’s Access-A-Ride (AAR) service has, according to agency data, regained close to 90% of pre-pandemic ridership with nearly 30,000 trips a day — a higher recovery rate than the subways or buses.

“It’s an amazing sign of progress that they are the ones who are returning to travel and to getting around at the highest level,” said Janno Lieber, MTA chairperson and CEO. “That’s a very positive sign for the region.”

But while officials said on-time performance for Access-A-Ride shot up in January to 98%, and hailed the results to last month’s customer satisfaction survey — the MTA’s data shows the agency has, in recent months, fallen short on some of its own marks.

The most recent publicly available on-time performance numbers from the MTA show that, in November, broker services — the contract vehicles that carry nearly three-quarters of all AAR customers — had an on-time performance that fell below the agency’s 85% goal. Meanwhile, primary carriers, the blue branded vans that ferry people with disabilities, reported an 86% on-time performance rate.

Broker services must pick up paratransit customers within 15 minutes of scheduled pick-up times, but in November, they did that 78% of the time, according to the MTA’s Access-A-Ride Dashboard.

“What that means is 22% of the time, it doesn’t meet that goal,” said Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “In other words, one out of every five rides is not on time.”

Out for Justice

In October, the Justice Department released the findings of an investigation into the New York City Transit Authority’s paratransit services that hit Access-A-Ride for untimely drop-offs and excessive travel times.

“NYCTA has failed to provide paratransit services at a level of service comparable to the level of service provided to individuals who use the fixed-route system,” the report reads. 

It was unclear what exactly sparked the federal investigation. But a letter from the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York to the MTA’s general counsel refers to the Americans With Disabilities Act, stating: “As you are aware, we received numerous complaints that the AAR paratransit program is not in compliance with the ADA.”

The DOJ did not return requests for comment.

The MTA’s Pangilinan argued the Justice Department report was based on pre-pandemic numbers prior to 2016, adding that the agency has implemented several of the reforms recommended by the feds.

“That was a different period at MTA, a different period with Access-A-Ride, when service was a little more difficult,” he told THE CITY.

But Jean Ryan, a motorized scooter user and paratransit customer, said reliability remains an issue.

“It’s better than it was in 1994,” said Ryan, president of Disabled in Action. “But look, if you’re going to take the subway or the bus and you never know if it is going to come, would you want to take the subway or the bus?

“No, you wouldn’t.”

No Satisfaction

The MTA highlighted the surge in customer satisfaction by inviting a pair of Access-A-Ride users to speak at a news conference in front of agency headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

“Access-A-Ride has been one of the most important components of my recovery,” said Marcella Maxwell, who has been relying on the service following a fall in her home last April. “I am 95 years old, I’m able to go out every day, I’m able to participate in my physical therapy.”

At an MTA board meeting last week, Lieber credited the increase in customer satisfaction to a series of moves made to improve accessibility. Those include the June settlement of two class-action lawsuits that will result in 95% of all subway stations being fully accessible to people with disabilities by 2055.

“It is a top priority,” Lieber said. 

The MTA this week also rolled out new features on its MY AAR app that allow riders to book trips from mobile devices, rather than having to call the paratransit call center.

Rappaport acknowledged — to a point — that the MTA has made some strides on customer satisfaction, citing the increase from last year.

“There is no doubt that this is progress,” he told THE CITY. “But it essentially means that rider satisfaction went from horrendous to awful.”

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