by Susan Koppelman
King County Metro’s Access paratransit program, already reeling from a June 2017 audit showing serious service deficiencies, seems to be compounding its troubles by making costly mistakes that may make the transportation problems of people with disabilities worse rather than better.
Metro purchased 34 new smaller Access vehicles in March of 2017 for $1.5 million. Annually Metro pays about $62 million on Access, or 10 percent of the total Metro budget, making it one of the most expensive paratransit services in the country at an average $60 per trip according to data from the National Transit Database.
The new 2015 MV1s are ramp-equipped “wheelchair accessible” vehicles that are available with a number of floor plans. Metro opted for a floor plan that cannot fit standard wheelchair sizes, including “WX”-size (30”x48”) wheelchairs according to Metro. The new MV1s are also unsafe for riders who use walkers due to the combination of no handrails on the ramp, the steepness of the ramp and the low ceiling of the vehicle, which requires a ducking maneuver at the top of the ramp.
While Metro has been working — albeit with some steps backwards — to make all Metro buses able to accommodate more wheelchair and scooter sizes (in line with the disability-friendly and everybody-friendly architectural and planning concept called universal design), it decided to purchase paratransit vehicles that cannot accommodate standard-sized wheelchairs and are unsafe for many riders who use walkers.
The purchase is due to a revolving door between the public and private sectors and a style of management that aligns Metro more closely with powerful contractors than with the disabled and elderly people dependent upon Access or the drivers from our community who provide this essential service.
At no point before the purchase did Metro consult riders or drivers on this purchase. Metro’s consultation of safety and maintenance teams was less than straightforward.
“Before our purchase, we coordinated with the contractors’ General Manager and asked them to provide any input they or their staff had regarding safety and maintenance,” Metro explained in an email. “We also convened a demo of the vehicle on Feb. 23, 2017, for Solid Ground and TransDev. Attendance included representatives from maintenance and safety. There was nothing of note to report from the demo, and we did not take minutes.”
But notes from the Transdev Safety Team in October 2017 after the purchase was completed highlight that the vehicles are not safe for many riders who use walkers. The notes mentioned that the vehicles’ ramps lack side rails, that passengers deboarding must bend over while stepping down the ramp to get out, and that steps were too high. Many of the features could lead to a passenger losing balance or falling as they enter or exit the vehicles. These Safety Team concerns are entirely missing from Metro’s analysis directing purchase of the MV1s.
A document attached to the “Recommendation to Purchase” memo falsely claims that wheelchairs sized by Metro as WX would fit in the MV1s. The document anticipated that the ramp width would prevent 3 percent of riders with over-sized chairs or walkers from accessing the vehicles. But Metro management now says that the MV1s cannot accommodate the standard WX wheelchairs. Thus, more than 3 percent of all Access riders are prohibited from using the MV1 due to Metro’s exclusion of the standard WX-sized power and manual wheelchairs. Add to this number many of the riders who need to use a walker and this purchase was clearly a bad move for Access from the beginning.
Within the first month, the MV1s were rolled out, one woman said she has been tormented by these inaccessible vehicles. The first time an MV1 was dispatched to her she tried to board it, but ultimately she was unable to board because when she got to the top of the ramp she couldn’t bend to get in. This one attempt was enough for her; she made it clear that she could not ride the MV1s and she asked for a new van.
An hour later the same MV1 was dispatched to the same woman, and she ended up missing an important appointment because she simply is unable to board the MV1s.
A third time, on another day, an MV1 was dispatched to her again — even though she’s been clear that the design of the MV1 does not work for her with her disabilities. Now in addition to all of the other stresses of relying on Access, she worries that dispatch will keep sending her MV1s and she is going to keep missing her appointments. This case clearly underscores the need to move towards universal design.
Local artist, actor, singer and storyteller Kibibi Monie rides Access and has been advocating for Metro to improve service by doing a better job of partnering with Access riders. Monie serves on Metro’s Access Community Advisory Group and Access RFP Workgroup. Monie uses a walker and is not happy about the MV1 purchase.
“They’re a waste of money,” Monie said. “On either setting, the ramp is too steep. The physical ability you have to have in order to use the ramp, it’s not for people who have difficulty getting around. I don’t feel as secure. There are no handrails. The ceilings are too low. They don’t provide the same safety to me. I don’t feel comfortable at all.”
While Metro neglected to consult riders, drivers or get notes from members of the safety, training and maintenance groups prior to purchase, it did speak with reps in management positions of the two largest privatizers of transportation globally — both are currently in contracts with Metro for the operation of Access and both submitted bids on the latest Request for Proposals to be the lead contractor of Access for the next 5 to 10 years.
The MV1 purchase appears to be First Transit management initiated, Transdev management endorsed, and then pushed by a King County Transportation Planner.
Metro first acquired six MV1s as part of an unsuccessful software experiment the agency conducted at the behest of First Transit, the subcontractor currently in charge of the Access Call Center.
A little over a year later, it appears that Metro bought into and accelerated the purchase of the MV1s ahead of the release of the King County Auditor’s Office’s critical audit.
On Feb. 23rd, 2017, Metro staff and others viewed the vehicle. This viewing made it clear that standard “WX”-sized wheelchairs would not fit on the 2015 models that were for sale, but Metro Accessible Services staff failed to update the Feb 15th, 2017 document attached to the recommendation to purchase that asserts only oversized chairs will not fit.
The records do not show that Metro seriously considered other vehicles.
In defending this purchase, Metro insists the MV1s will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but at no point does Metro compare the MV1s to the propane-fueled Access vehicles already in its fleet.
Metro writes, “We expect the MV-1 to reduce fuel usage by 50 percent or more compared to our gas and diesel-powered minibusses. We also anticipate a 50 percent or more reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These savings will contribute to achieving the targets in King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan.”
But Metro has already made a serious investment in propane-fueled Access vehicles. Propane has lower carbon content than gasoline or diesel and is not a direct greenhouse gas when released into the atmosphere. King County owns 64 Access vehicles that are powered by propane and Access bases have large propane fueling tanks on site. The fact that Metro’s recommendation to purchase the MV1s includes zero analysis attempting to compare fuel usage and greenhouse emissions of the MV1s to the vehicles currently in the King County Access fleet which are fueled by propane is a red flag.
Tracy Roscher, King County Transportation Planner, writes in an email to the salesman looking to sell the vehicles to the county, “If these could have LPG / Propane would be even better sell”.
The 2015 First Transit pilot report offers an amazing admission of how corporate-driven Access priorities are. We already know from the 2017 King County Auditor’s report that in 2008 Metro signed a 5.9% escalation clause for the tens of millions of dollars in Access contracts while actual inflation averaged 1.5%, resulting in a direct handover of millions of dollars to the contractors. Meanwhile, total rides and total service hours were going down, likely as a result of the contractors’ poor service and poor contract management on Metro’s part; drivers compensation did not benefit at all from these millions. Now from the public records of the MV1 purchase, we know that Metro has just let one of these contractors sell the county a bunch of inaccessible vehicles with zero analysis.
This management style cannot continue.
Need for review
Since July 2017, Access riders and representatives from Metro’s Community Advisory Group-CAG, ARC of King County, the Transit Riders Union, Open Doors for Multicultural Families and others have been lobbying King County Council for an Access Review Board (ARB). The group contends that the ARB should have the power to review requests for funding, contracts and equipment purchases exceeding $100,000.
In January Metro announced the creation of a new Access Task Force “to provide an ongoing opportunity to advise Metro Transit on its Paratransit Access program and to help us prioritize and address areas of mutual concern while developing a vision for ongoing improvements.” But according to Metro’s vision, this task force will not have any oversight powers. It will not be the Access Review Board the Agency so clearly needs.
The MV1 purchase is yet another example of how Metro would do well to truly involve Access riders & rider representatives and Access drivers & maintenance staff as more equal partners in decision making. Altogether, we can make strides to improve Access service and be better stewards of taxpayer funds while keeping each other safe.
As a county, we need Metro to be more aligned with riders, drivers and taxpayers, and less so with the powerful contractors who have obvious conflicts of interest.
But more importantly, Access riders need to be involved in decisions that impact Access riders. Period. As the famous slogan goes: “Nothing about us, without us.”
Please contact your King County Councilmember and tell them you stand in solidarity with Access riders asking for an Access Review Board with oversight powers.
Susan Koppelman is an organizer with Stop Veolia Seattle and Disability & Access Committee co-chair of the Transit Riders Union.