Metro has been awarded a top prize for innovation by a transit industry group for controversial changes it has made to its services for disabled riders.

The American Public Transportation Association awarded Metro its Innovation Award Tuesday for changing its services for disabled riders to save more than $25 million in fiscal 2011.

Metro changed eligibility for riders of its paratransit service, offering free rides and training to use the cheaper bus and train system instead of MetroAccess. Metro made the changes to contain booming ridership and costs on MetroAccess, the federally mandated shared ride service that costs the system nearly $40 per trip.

Over the past two fiscal years, two million more trips have been taken on bus and rail by disabled riders, "greatly increasing customer satisfaction and empowerment," according to APTA.

But the news may come as a surprise to disabled riders who have been some of Metro's most vocal critics, filling public hearings this year over the proposed fare hikes.

Metro has not only changed the eligibility for riders, but it also has reduced the service area for new MetroAccess riders to the legal minimum.

It also changed the fare structure to be double that of bus and train trips up to a $7 cap. Riders have complained that the system means fares vary day by day, minute by minute, leaving them with unexpected and costly trips to key medical appointments. Some have argued that they have been pushed out of the system with the higher costs, causing the agency's MetroAccess ridership drop and savings.