New York

Access-a-Ride Costs Exploding Because There Aren’t Enough Subway Elevators

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Access-A-Ride, New York’s federally-mandated paratransit service, is already straining government budgets — and demand is only expected to grow. A new report from New York University argues that the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority need to do more to provide lower-cost options to the city’s growing elderly and disabled populations, by improving accessibility of buses, subways, taxis and for-hire vehicles.

“Right now, paratransit is in a state of flux in most U.S. cities,” said Sarah Kaufman of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “New York is not alone in needing to change its system, but we are the largest and the costliest by far.”

Access-A-Ride cost $85.2 million and carried 1.7 million rides in 2000, increasing to an estimated $506 million this year for more than 6.3 million trips. NYU projects the number of trips will skyrocket to 14.3 million by 2022. Although the MTA has been in charge of Access-A-Ride contracts since 1993, the city covers one-third of its ballooning operating costs.

Installing more elevators in subway stations could reduce the burden on Access-A-Ride. Today, only 112 of the city’s 491 subway stations, including the Staten Island Railway, are fully accessible. NYU’s report recommends that the MTA focus on stations in neighborhoods with growing senior populations and the highest projected demand for Access-A-Ride, including Lower Manhattan, the East Side, and Harlem.

Advocates for the disabled say the MTA hasn’t followed through on subway accessibility promises. “They said that they were interested in making the subways more accessible and that we would continue to talk and to meet,” said Susan M. Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York. “But subsequently, they dropped the topic altogether. They stopped communication. And so that effort went nowhere.”

The New York City Transit capital program includes $739.5 million for full accessibility, the authority said, including $563.3 million for 11 “key stations” that will be completed by 2020. It would cost approximately $9 billion to install more than 870 elevators at approximately 350 stations to make the system fully accessible, the MTA says.

Another potential Access-A-Ride fix: making better use of taxis and for-hire vehicles, which offer more flexible, on-demand service. Less than 20 percent of Access-A-Ride users are in wheelchairs, making even non-accessible for-hire vehicles an option for most paratransit users. “It is reasonable to call on these private services for the ambulatory disabled,” Kaufman said, “which would free up funds to improve traditional paratransit to a much higher standard.”

Agreements are in place to expand the number of accessible vehicles, including a plan to make half of all taxis wheelchair-accessible by 2020, but accessible for-hire vehicles remain few and far between. One roadblock: ensuring that the cost of for-hire trips are reasonable, since the elderly and disabled often live on limited incomes.

In addition to Access-A-Ride’s high cost to taxpayers, it’s notoriously inefficient for users, who must make reservations one to two days in advance of a trip. An audit released in May by Comptroller Scott Stringer found that customers were being left stranded at a high rate, and contractors weren’t facing sufficient consequences.

There are some bright spots: An accessible taxi dispatch program in Manhattan has proven successful, Kaufman said, and the city is looking to expand it citywide early next year. Some Access-A-Ride trips have already been transferred to taxis or for-hire vehicles “as a cost-savings measure,” the Taxi and Limousine Commission said. The MTA also offers MetroCards to Access-A-Ride users to encourage them to use the bus or subway.

NYU recommends that the MTA look at hotspots for Access-A-Ride pick-ups, such as hospitals, which could benefit from shared rides and designated pick-up and drop-off locations. This data could also inform the MTA’s bus route planning.

This latest NYU brief follows a report on paratransit that researchers issued in September. Kaufman said she is already working on another report, due out next year, focused on Access-A-Ride demand at hospitals and healthcare facilities.

With the cost of Access-A-Ride only going up, advocates want the MTA to consider savings for Access-A-Ride when weighing the cost of accessibility improvements.

“We need to look at the system for transportation as a whole,” Dooha said.

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