by Kelsey Hamlin
Going out on a limb, parent Becky Bisbee, decided one day to use Access, a $61 million ADA transit program under King County Metro. Her non-verbal and physically disabled daughter was supposed to attend a day camp sponsored by Seattle Parks and Recreation but Bisbee couldn’t get her there. At noon, someone from the day camp called asking if the young girl was coming. This was three hours after Bisbee’s daughter first journeyed to catch the Access van.
Bisbee, recounting this at Tuesday’s King County Council meeting, began to tear up. Deep down in the pit of her stomach, the ghost memory of panic churned.
“We called Access and asked what was happening,” Bisbee said. “We asked about the ride home, and were told we could expect about the same amount of service and time. We have never used it since.”
Bisbee’s tale was but one account given on Tuesday. Story after story came from people with disabilities themselves, along with their caretakers and family members.
Rose Yu’s son, Asher Brown, became an Access rider as a part of Seattle Schools Transition Program. Meanwhile, Yu, a single mom, commutes to work every day.
“I was never sure whether and if Access would show up,” she said. “One of the most stressful aspects of my life is facing Access: the booking hassles, the delays and missed rides, my son’s ensuing anxiety and the need for me to problem solve while trying to work full-time. There’s no excuse for this level of unreliable service, especially given the amount that our taxpayers pay.”
One day, when Access was scheduled to arrive for Brown between 8 and 8:30 a.m., Yu got a call from her son. He had been shivering in the cold and rain for two hours.
Another woman, a lifelong transit rider whose mobile limitations began in 2013, claimed some buses will not pick-up people with wheelchairs. She cited bus route 7, going from her Rainier Valley home to a dentist in the International District. She sat out in the rain for an hour and a half because bus after bus passed her. She also expressed that the two spots meant for wheelchairs are often occupied by baby carriages. Other times, the ramps simply don’t work.
Another woman, using a walker, said the spotty transit has made her miss appointments multiple times.
Trudy Tang had someone else read her speech, because she had work at 5:30 a.m. that morning. She works full-time at Safeway. Tang and her husband are Chinese immigrants with three children. Their middle child is 22-year-old Toby.
“We cannot book access for him because the system is too hard for us to use,” Tang wrote. “Toby’s case manager has set up his rides to and from work for the few days a week that he has a job … Access is not reliable and will drop Toby off too early or miss picking him up. When they sent a yellow cab for the first time and didn’t tell us, my son didn’t know if he was suppose [sic] to take it. I wish access were more reliable and easier to schedule.”
A couple years ago, Harriet Williams decided to take matters into her own hands and passed out fliers asking for others who have struggled with transit to give her a call. She eventually organized a meeting between Metro and 10 people sharing her grievances.
“I don’t think people should be left in places where they can be beat up, robbed, whatever,” she said, hands on her wheelchair’s tires. Her speech was short and terse. Williams had nothing else to say and was visibly frustrated.
“She’s doing the [KCMT’s] job for them,” activist Susan Koppelman said. King County Auditor reports also show that almost half of all respondents to Access’ recent customer survey said they were dissatisfied with travel time.
KCMT is currently going through a Request for Proposal (RFP) with the county, which is in part why people showed up for testimony. It will be finalized in 2018, taking over for the next 10 years. Like much of the testimony, the auditors’ report expressed major flaws in KCMT’s customer service.
Larry Brubaker, the senior principal management auditor, explained some of their findings: Transit standards for timely service are inadequate, there’s higher cost, fewer riders, and poorer performance. Access has seen a decline in passengers and in service hours, but KCMT pays providers higher than peer agencies do. Those providers are subcontractors Veolia/Transdev, First Transit, and Solid Ground.
Brubaker explained that the payment structure — $59 per hour of vehicle service — disincentivizes efficient trips. In one instance, a passenger’s trip from Kenmore to Kirkland took 61 minutes. The driver went through Lake Forest Park, down into Ballard, across Lake Washington, and into Kenmore (pictured below). The trip would normally take 20 minutes with a normal route.
Sean Deblieck from the King County auditor’s office confirmed that early drop-offs, onboard time, and payment options are also an issue.
Arriving too early to an Access rider’s destination means leaving them in potentially dangerous areas or inducing stress for those with autism or brain-related impairments. By KCMT standards, “too early” means more than 60 minutes, but Federal Transit Administration says “too early” is half that time. This changes KCMT’s on-time measurements considerably, going from 81 percent of the time to 47 percent. The FTA standard is recommended, however, not a compliance standard. But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits paratransit agencies, like Access, from having too many excessively long trips compared to typical bus service.
The Access system, similar to Metro’s bus system, also requires paying with cash, which is a hassle, as pointed out by customers and previous audits.
“Why do we need an audit to tell us there’s only one way to pay and that’s not convenient,” councilmember Kathy Lambert asked. “It does concern me that some of the things the audit brought out are kind of basic. This is like kindergartener stuff.”
Lambert further inquired about what she saw as an oddity: within the stack of papers Councilmembers received, there was a page in which one of the metrics was “contractor paid in error.”
Auditors found that, over the past eight years, Transit only billed contractors for half of their missed trips, collecting $97,000 instead of over $250,000. Transit also awarded less than $24,000 incentives which were mostly paid in error. Nearly half of the 29 performance-based payments were paid even though performance standards were not met.
In addition, previous members of the Metro Access Community Advisory Group are being replaced during Metro’s Phase II. This was discussed as a problem of discontinuity, forcing an advisory group to start again at ground zero when KCMT had an already-established, now-informed advisory for two years already. Those members weren’t allowed to go on to the next KCMT committee.
“I don’t think we should have drops in the link like that,” Lambert said.
KCMT complies with the ADA’s mandated paratransit service through a contractual outsourcing model, a “cost-plus” model. This guarantees a subcontractor profit regardless of performance. In addition, because it pays by the hour of service, it incentivizes companies to keep riders as long as possible.
12 percent of Access van trips could be provided for less on taxis, saving $805,000 per year. Other states have mixed their services with Lyft and Uber as well. Transit is additionally spending money on good technology it’s not using, like booking software and an itinerary planning tool which tracks compliance with ADA requirements. Transit spent $331,575 from 2010 to 2016 maintaining these programs without using them.
The previous Community Advisory Group (CAG) was astonished when they learned KCMT had these programs at hand. After inquiry, they were told “we need to wait for the new contract…target date late 2018.”
“This delay is yet another example of KCMT’s inability to execute on relatively small, but important to riders, projects,” CAG member Robert Angrisano wrote to the council.
“As we all know, this is a lifeline service,” councilmember Claudia Balducci said. “The stories of really excessive trip lengths, it really hurts to hear stuff like that. I’m not yet hearing how the contracting method that we have selected will drive us strongly enough in that direction.”
In addition, KCMT has not been open with King County nor their own committee. Councilmember Rod Debowksi stated councilmembers were refused access to the RFP. Angrisano explained that CAG was denied access to comparison reports done by hired consultant Nelson/Nygaard analyzing paratransit services. They even filed a public records request for it and haven’t received it. KCMT additionally has hardly any contract oversight while letting contractors self-report and investigate themselves.
Complaints currently are filed to the Access Customer Service office, where First Transit records complaints and distributes them for research. Under the new RFP, complaints and commendations will be filed with King County Metro Customer Service, then forwarded to the contractor for initial research and a draft response, Metro spokesperson Scott Gutierrez explained in an email. Metro will review these and issue the final responses.
“Transit has not conducted adequate contract oversight in the past,” the most recent audit states. “We made two recommendations in 2009 to improve Transit’s oversight of contractors and use of performance metrics, including the development of a plan to address productivity goals. Although Transit implemented our recommendations, we found that Transit has not provided better oversight of performance provisions, or used them effectively to change contractor behavior.”
Attendees were asking for the creation of an independent Metro Access Review Board to remedy issues. They also asked for a new RFP. Puget Sound Advocate for Retirement Action, Transit Riders Union, mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver, and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant stand in solidarity with these requests. Balducci seemed on board, calling the oversight idea “a really good one.”
Debora Anderson, a member on the King County Board for Developmental Disabilities, said in the hallway “[KCMT] didn’t fail and succeed, they failed and got caught. For every single council member to say we need to review, that’s a win.”
Anderson earlier expressed that she heard Access struggle stories all the time but didn’t encounter it first hand until a summer camp. One of her members had a complete breakdown because she was scared of missing an appointment. The board member, who said she wasn’t representing the board with her comments, noted the pseudo-inclusivity of having Access during her testimony, noting that it just makes people feel overwhelmed because of how poorly it runs. Anderson was excited to be on the board but said she’s watched it “go on the rocks,” and KCMT needs to go back to the drawing board.
A community advisory group meeting will take place Thursday from 6:00 – 8:00 pm at 200 S Jackson Street (8th floor).
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter working with various Seattle publications. Currently, she’s nearly finished with her University of Washington undergraduate career with interdisciplinary Honors., majoring in journalism and minoring in Law, Societies & Justice. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her work on her website.