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‘Access-A-Ride Is Failing’: MTA Board Gets Earful as Paratransit Service Plummets

November 19, 2021 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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The number of New Yorkers left stranded by paratransit providers spiked in September, new data shows, marking the latest blow to Access-A-Ride service that critics say is “in crisis.”

Riders with limited mobility who rely on broker car services experienced a 121% increase in no-shows in September, according to MTA figures — with the number of absentee drivers per 1,000 scheduled trips surging to 6.31 that month, up from 2.85 in August.

“You call them up and they just say, ‘It’s on the way, it’s on the way,” Michael Ring, 58, an Access-A-Ride customer from Brooklyn, told THE CITY ahead of an MTA hearing he testified at on Wednesday. “And it’s not.”

Riders and advocates for those with disabilities urged MTA officials at the agency’s monthly board meeting to speed the turnaround of a system whose recent performance has sunk to its lowest level in years because of driver shortages and increased traffic.

In testimony before the board, Access-A-Ride customer Valerie Joseph cited a Nov. 7 story in THE CITY that flagged the MTA for falling short of its goals in numerous categories, including wait times for scheduled rides and calls to book rides that, in September, went unanswered 13% of the time.

“Access-A-Ride is failing,” said Joseph, who uses a motorized wheelchair and lives in Queens Village. “Our riders are later than ever.”

Access-a-Ride user Michael Ring testified at an MTA board meeting Wednesday.

Ridership Up, Drivers Down

Paratransit vehicle ridership has returned at a higher rate than the subways, buses and commuter rail lines, reaching about 80% of its pre-pandemic levels, according to the MTA.

But that growth has been accompanied by a sharp dropoff in the number of drivers for green and yellow taxis and e-hail services.

“I am a very patient, understanding and compassionate person,” said Krista Simeone, 32, who said she uses Access-A-Ride four days a week to get between Flushing and Kew Gardens in Queens. “But when you’re dealing with this day in and day out and have no control over your commute, it does something to you — it makes me agitated, angry.”

MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber acknowledged that paratransit riders need to be better served.

“We were doing pretty well during COVID, when there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the streets,” Lieber told THE CITY after the hearing. “It’s gotten a lot more difficult as traffic congestion has come back and on top of that, we have this tremendous shortage of drivers, but we are attacking the issue.”

Craig Cipriano, the interim president of New York City Transit, which oversees subway, bus and paratransit service, said the number of green and yellow taxi drivers has dropped to around 8,000 from the 22,000 on the job pre-pandemic. The number of e-hail drivers, he added, has fallen from 90,000 to around 60,000.

“There are driver shortages, but we need to find ways to attract drivers,” he said, pointing out that hiring has begun to pick up since August, dropping the driver vacancy rate.

In some cases, new drivers have been offered sign-on bonuses of $2,000 or more.

New York City Transit Interim President Craig Cipriano.

New Solutions Needed

While the driver shortage adds a complication, paratransit service has been slumping for months, data posted to the MTA’s Access-A-Ride dashboard shows.

“I urge you to take a look at the Access-A-Ride dashboard — just Google it — and you’ll see the sorry tale,” Joseph Rappaport, executive director of Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, told the MTA board Wednesday. “And service wasn’t great beforehand.”

“We need to find a new solution of how to make Access-A-Ride work,” said Victor Calise, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and an MTA board member. “We need some change there.”

Lieber said Access-A-Ride’s struggles help make the case for tolling vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street as part of the MTA’s congestion pricing plans.

“We need emergency vehicles to be able to get around, we need buses to be able to get around, we need paratransit to be able to get around,” he said. “And when the streets are clogged up with people who are just driving in a single-occupancy vehicle, that’s a problem.”

Meanwhile, the MTA on Wednesday also said it may have to schedule fare hikes for 2022, 2023 and 2025 to balance its budget, despite a recent injection of federal funds. The hikes would also affect Access-a-Ride prices.

Simeone, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, said the slip in service has made her set aside at least an hour for what should be a 20-minute commute within Queens.

“It takes a toll on even the most positive person,” she said. “It really affects you.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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