Faced with surging ridership and an escalating budget, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) looked for a way to revamp its MetroAccess paratransit services.
“Over four years, the paratransit budget from 2005 to 2009 doubled from $52 million to $104 million,” explained Christian T. Kent, assistant GM, Access Services. “[The growth] was mostly driven by all these additional customers signing onto the service and finding it was meeting their needs, so we were really the victims of our success.”
A long, lingering issue Metro experienced was that nearly 100% of people who applied for MetroAccess attained certification. So, in 2009, the agency took the certification process in-house, switching to a more medical clinic-type approach, which required potential customers to fill out the application with their physician before sending it to Metro which would then set up an appointment with the applicant, explained Frank Roth, director, eligibility certification and outreach.
“When we started doing it this way, we found it was more efficient for the customer,” Roth said. “It was also more efficient for us. We could get them in for their appointment, take care of their assessment and get a determination made on them.”
Metro’s new business model for certifying MetroAccess customers included attention to detail, strong customer focus, and several innovative approaches, including employing recreational therapists to conduct paratransit eligibility assessments. The agency’s new model also assigns a case worker to every customer.
“When the applicant makes the call to schedule the appointment, one person will follow them through the process, work at completing the assessment, and make the final determination,” explained Roth. “If there are any questions post-assessment, that person would actually be the one to work with that customer because of their familiarity.”
Metro’s last step for the certification process includes a quality control step. Roth and his staff review all findings of paratransit service ineligibility. This practice has improved the customer relationship and resulted in an 80% decrease in appeals.
“Because the old model had some inefficiencies built in it, when we first started the new model, we had a higher than industry standard ineligibility rate,” said Roth. “Now, it’s pretty close to the industry standard. Also, because of the way we do our assessments, we don’t get a whole lot of appeals that come in after that.”
Metro also created a reduced fare program for customers who don’t qualify for MetroAccess. If they have a qualifying disability, they are automatically enrolled in the program.
As part of its revamped paratransit program, Metro also provides travel training and outreach to customers with disabilities to teach them about the accessibility features of the bus and rail systems. Riders who qualify for MetroAccess service but are able to make use of bus and rail services for some trips are offered fare free access as an incentive. In fiscal year 2011, customers opted for the free ride on 559,106 bus and rail trips, saving Metro more than $25 million in paratransit service costs.
“We empowered the customer with knowledge that they don’t have to use paratransit just because they are eligible,” said Kent.
Metro’s new approach to paratransit services has earned the agency the 2012 Innovation Award from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which it will receive during a ceremony at APTA’s Annual Meeting in Seattle this October.
“When we first considered these changes, we wanted to make sure customers knew it was being done for their benefit,” said Kent. “Whenever you talk about paratransit eligibility and even imply you are making a change, most customers [think] we’re taking away benefits from them. It’s taken a lot of promotional effort to let people know they have more options.”