Metro’s Subcontracting of Access Paratransit Puts Disabled Riders at Risk and Drains Taxpayer Dollars

by Susan Koppelman

Metro Access is a federally mandated transportation service for people with disabilities and the elderly, but don’t let the name fool you. Metro subcontracts every aspect of the service to three independent contractors: Veolia/Transdev, First Transit, and Solid Ground.

All three contracts are up in 2018, and the new Request for Proposals (RFPs) for the contracts for the next 10-year, multi-term contracts are expected to be released by the end of March. This month we are also promised the results of a long-awaited audit of the service.

The Transit Riders Union continues to hear ongoing horror stories from riders who rely on Access, or who need Access but cannot afford to ride it. Just last week at our most recent Access Community Meeting at the Kent Senior Activity Center, I met Mary who staffs the front desk. She is a grandmother and nearly a senior herself, but she has driven home an Access-reliant woman multiple times, straining to fold the woman’s walker into her personal car, because Access has been so late or doesn’t show.

John Mclaughlin works for Kent Parks Adaptive Recreation. He came to the meeting hoping for news that the Access service would be improving. “Just yesterday, Access was over an hour late picking up one of my clients…. And then they didn’t communicate with the family who was calling to check on her, nobody answered their call and the family ended up coming all of the way out here, it was a mess…. They are regularly late. There will be some periods where it improves, it’s okay for a little while, and then, like I said, just yesterday they were over an hour late.”

Access is notorious for taking riders on meandering routes all across the county, often passing nearby their drop-off point, but taking them way out of their way before finally bringing them home. There is a horror story of a dialysis patient getting trapped on Access after dialysis for nearly 5 hours. Riders have been stranded at Walmart. There’s a major failure in accountability and some of the most vulnerable members of our community are suffering as a result.

Given all of this, it is highly questionable why King County has waited to conduct and release the results of an audit of Access until the same time as it publishes a new RFP for the next 10 years. The audit might very well reveal that the service could be run better if it were no longer outsourced by Metro. The public, including Access riders, disability justice and transit justice advocates and the King County Council should be able to review the audit and give feedback before the RFP is published.

Activists with Stop Veolia Seattle have been meeting with King County Council members and pushing for an audit of one of the three subcontractors, Veolia/Transdev, since 2014 after noticing a series of contract changes signed by Metro giving Veolia/Transdev an additional $7.3 million each year for its operation of Metro Access while total Access rides and total service hours have gone down.

The Transit Riders Union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 and the MLK County Labor Council joined the push and on March 18, 2015, Council chair Larry Phillips sent a letter from five council members to Executive Dow Constantine urging an audit of Veolia.

Two months later, after meeting with representatives of the coalition, staff to Executive Constantine informed Stop Veolia Seattle that Constantine would be moving forward with an audit of Veolia: “[Constantine] takes the allegations against TransDev very seriously. He has directed his staff to follow up with you quickly and to treat the issue with urgency… I want to let you know we are drafting a letter from the Executive to inform TransDev that we will be auditing their contract with Metro Access.”

Then their office went silent for over a year, despite monthly follow-ups. In July 2016, Stop Veolia Seattle, A. Philip Randolph Institute, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 and others organized “Solidarity Works: Boston School Bus Drivers Victory Over Veolia West Coast Tour”. Four visiting Boston School Bus Drivers — Georgia Scott, Stevan Kirschbaum, Claude “Tou Tou” St Germain and Noura Braggs — spoke in the Seattle Labor Temple about their powerful victory over Veolia’s attempted union busting. They were joined via video conference by Monica Lewis-Patrick speaking about Veolia’s role in the lead poisoning crisis and cover-up in Flint. The following day a small group of Access riders, disabled public transit riders, Access drivers and activists, joined by the Boston School Bus Drivers, held a small rally outside of Metro.

A week later King County’s Auditors Office called representatives from Stop Veolia Seattle and the Transit Riders Union announcing that they would be conducting a performance audit of Access as a whole.

But now the RFP is set to be published by the end of this month and we still haven’t seen the results of the audit that are meant to inform the RFP process. To those who are committed to a new contract that does not have the same problems as the old contract, it seems that the RFP should be delayed to allow disability justice and transit justice advocates time to review the audit and give feedback to the RFP process. The additional $7.3 million paid annually to Veolia/Transdev since 2011 suggests that King County could run the service more affordably in-house.

There’s an easy case to be made that a number of the problems with Access are the result of how Access has been subcontracted.

Take the First Transit contract for starters. First Transit is contracted by Metro to run the Call Center, which is also responsible for scheduling, routing, producing drivers’ manifests and staffing customer service, which includes complaints investigation. This means that if riders have a concern with how their phone call is handled or how their ride is scheduled or routed, the same corporation that is responsible for these problems is also in charge of investigating any complaints. There is no accountability here.

Riders call customer service to report grievances, a number of which are violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But if riders do not also separately report these violations to Metro’s ADA compliance officer, there is no mechanism for Metro to investigate these violations. This is a major failure in how Metro chose to bid the last 10-year contract.

The audit is likely to address this concern and we can expect that the RFP will separate out customer service and complaints investigation from other aspects of the contract. But the fact that Metro allowed this arrangement at all seriously calls into question allowing Metro to continue to subcontract this service.

A large number of Access riders across King County have reported that customer service has threatened to cut off their service if they continue to submit grievances. These are really serious allegations, but as far as the Transit Riders Union knows, these allegations have not been properly investigated. As poor as the service can be at times, for many residents, it’s their only option.

Veolia/Transdev and the local nonprofit Solid Ground are each subcontracted to operate the Metro Access vans. Veolia/Transdev operates about 75% and Solid Ground 25%. The same month as the Boston school bus drivers won their new contract, Veolia/Transdev drivers locally won their union. Their first contract, negotiated by Teamsters 117, put them ahead of Solid Ground drivers in terms of wages. Solid Ground drivers are currently in mediation over the terms of a new contract after 15 months without a contract. ATU Local 587 has a strike authorization from its members at Solid Ground should the next round of mediation later this month not see any improvements.

Access drivers make roughly two-thirds of what Metro fixed-route drivers make. This is the main reason the service is subcontracted: Metro does not want to pay Access drivers, who are responsible for transporting some of our most vulnerable community members door-to-door, the same wages and benefits paid to Metro fixed route bus drivers. Solid Ground Access drivers start at $15.52 an hour. Metro fixed-route drivers make $31.49 after 3 years.

In 2008 Metro canceled the successorship contract with MV Transport and gave the work to Veolia Transportation stating this would represent $1 million in savings. But the very next year Metro signed a change to the contract giving Veolia $1 million more each year. $1 million was transferred directly from the drivers’ wages and benefits to Veolia. Additional contract changes are now giving Veolia/Transdev at least an additional $7.3 million annually from King County taxpayers. Taxpayers deserve to see a report on what it would take to bring Access in-house before Metro goes ahead with publishing a new RFP.

Access riders are paying more too. The last fare hike hit Access riders hardest, raising the cost per ride from $1.25 to $1.75. Metro offers low-income seniors and disabled riders $36 unlimited monthly passes. But riders who qualify for Access and these low-income unlimited passes still must cough up $1.75 per ride for Access. This leaves some riders home, while others climb hills to ride the fixed-route buses even though doing so is not safe for them given their disabled or senior condition.

Veolia/Transdev, the largest privatizer of water in the world and major privatizer of transportation, is notorious for jeopardizing public health and safety in their quest to turn public investment into private profit. It is suspicious how they passed King County’s responsibility criteria ten years ago, but recent activities surely must exclude them from the next bid. Veolia was charged by the Michigan Attorney General for participating in the lead poisoning and cover up in Flint, Michigan, and in 2014 was also found guilty of criminal negligence resulting in the poisoning of 3.6 million people in Lanzhou, China with toxic levels of benzene in the water supply. In 2013 Grace Crunican, formerly of Seattle DOT, was involved in hiring Veolia Transportation during a BART strike, and authorizing strike busters who killed two workers during a routine training exercise.

If the RFP is published we can expect that Veolia/Transdev and First Transit, the two largest privatizers of public transportation in the world, will be going after each other’s contracts. First Transit’s poor manifests — which have 9:30 pickups before 9:15 pickups and take riders past their drop-off points all over the county — leave First Transit with little standing if there is a next bid.

There is some good news: 30 routes were added around September and if you trust Metro’s figures, their on-time performance has improved. The bad news is that this may just be a ploy to ease tensions ahead of the next 10-year bid, and there’s no guarantee that these routes won’t simply be cut again in 2018 if Veolia/Transdev is able to lock in a new 10-year contract.

To their credit, Metro has been taking steps to resolve some of the glaring problems ahead of the next RFP, like reducing the amount of time riders can be dropped off before their doctor or church is even open, tasking drivers with necessary route changes and making scheduling rides easier, particularly for folks with access to the internet or smart phones. But serious concerns remain.

Please reach out to your King County Councilmember and ask them to urge Metro to hold off on releasing any new RFPs for Access until the public, including Access riders, disability justice and transit justice activists and the King County Council may be able to review the results of the audit and seriously consider bringing the service in-house under direct Metro operation like our fixed-route Metro buses.

Susan Koppelman is an organizer with Stop Veolia Seattle and Disability & Access Committee co-chair of the Transit Riders Union.

Featured image: Susan Koppelman 

3 thoughts on “Metro’s Subcontracting of Access Paratransit Puts Disabled Riders at Risk and Drains Taxpayer Dollars”

  1. I have been riding Access regularly for around 5 years now and most of the time the service has been adequate, but there are times the drivers have been downright frightening in their behavior. Recklessly driving over rough railroad crossings tossing frail passengers around in the seats, not being able to follow instructions and getting lost and making me miss important medical appointments at the VA hospital. When I was riding Access to church, several riders were routinely dropped off long before the buildings were even open and I could no longer deal with sitting on my walker with the rain coming down for a half hour so I quit attending. I was often subjected to a 2 to 3 hour ride after being in an early evening physical therapy group after often waiting in the rain for 30 to 40 min. for a driver that may or may not show up. A disabled Veteran friend of mine is hard of hearing and has trouble dealing with a cell phone and finally quit coming to therapy groups at the Vet center because of poor service with Access. I am greatfull for the service when I have no other alternative, but there have been times I feel like I am being punished for having no other alternative.