Transit agency saves millions on shift

Fewer people are using Metro's door-to-door service for disabled riders as the agency encourages them to ride the bus or rail instead, saving Metro millions of dollars.

Demand for MetroAccess in 2011 dipped for the first time since the program's inception in 1994, and the drop in ridership continues, down 11 percent in the last fiscal year, saving the agency $9 million. Metro is predicted to have fewer MetroAccess riders again this fiscal year, saving the agency a predicted $6 million, according to documents provided to a D.C. Council oversight committee.

Metro officials said the shift came after they ramped up efforts to teach people with disabilities how to use bus and rail in 2010. They also introduced new rules for eligibility for MetroAccess, putting some people in a category in which they were able to use MetroAccess only if certain conditions were met. For example, a person with limited vision may be able to use MetroAccess at night but would be asked to take bus or rail during the day, officials said.

"The issue is that if people don't realize just how accessible bus and rail are, they're going to assume [MetroAccess] is the only option for them," said Christian Kent, Metro's assistant general manager for access services.

Metro has "travel trainers" who will accompany people with disabilities from home to work, or any other destination in the area, to teach them how to use public transit options.

"The cumulative effect of all of this has really empowered people to travel independently when they want, where they want," Kent said.

Metro offers free bus and rail rides for all riders who are approved to use MetroAccess. And riders with disabilities who don't qualify for MetroAccess can buy reduced-fare SmarTrip cards -- cutting their fares in half.

But even with disabled riders paying lower fares, Metro is saving money. The agency typically spends $50 on every MetroAccess ride, with users paying at most $7. A bus or rail trip can cost riders nothing, and the agency about $4.

Metro offered more than 1 million free trips to MetroAccess riders on bus and rail in the last fiscal year, up from less than half a million before 2011, Kent said.

The shift to bus and rail is a good thing for the disabled community, said Patrick Sheehan, chairman of Metro's Accessibility Advisory Committee and a blind Metro rider.

"We want MetroAccess to be used by the people that need it the most and that can benefit from it, so making sure the right people get the right trips is important," Sheehan said. "I think it's good for folks to have choice."