Transit providers attract complaints like an empty schedule attracts useless meetings. Although 99% of the community may find your transportation program to be perfectly adequate, the other 1% are busily composing harangues to the local newspaper, posting harangues in a local blog or haranguing your customer-service agents on the phone.
Case in point, the MetroAccess program operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The contract for this ADA service recently changed hands, which, as you might expect, has caused some glitches in the quality of service. One driver apparently circled the Jefferson Memorial several times in search of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Complaints about customers being stranded or picked up late have also been common.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has taken WMATA to task for the shortcomings of its ADA program, citing 11 areas in which the service is substandard. He went as far as to tell a Washington Post reporter that the system is not only unsatisfactory but “on occasion even been potentially life-threatening.”
Painted as the villain
Adding to WMATA’s discomfort, a local TV station reported on Feb. 9 that MetroAccess dispatchers refused to send a van to pick up a woman whose wheelchair was broken, stranding her outdoors on a cold evening. The report also implicated WMATA’s Metrobus program, alleging that its buses also refused to pick up the woman, who was eventually taken to a safe place by the fire department.
So, how has WMATA responded to recent allegations about MetroAccess’ failings and other complaints about its service? It has taken its case to the Internet, posting rebuttals and refutations on its Websit (www.wmata.com) in an area called “Metro’s Straight Scoop.” As of early March, the section contained 32 links dating back to February 2005.
The responses target newspaper articles and letters to the editor (most of them published in the Washington Post), online chat and one TV report. The topics range in importance from relatively minor (why an electronic sign isn’t working at the East Falls Church Metrorail Station) to more wide-ranging (why MetroAccess service has experienced difficulties while transitioning between contractors).
Rebuttal was particularly pointed after the TV news story aired about the woman with the broken wheelchair who was “stranded” by MetroAccess and Metrobus providers. WMATA used its “Straight Scoop” to explain that users of the MetroAccess system must undergo eligibility testing under federal guidelines before they can use the service. It also pointed out that the woman was not waiting at a bus stop, which explains why its fixed-route buses passed her by: “There is no reasonable way that a Metrobus operator or anyone else in a vehicle, would have ever known that a woman in a wheelchair who was on a sidewalk some distance from a bus stop would have been in distress and in need of assistance.”
Addressing the reporter’s assertion that it did not return his phone calls, the Straight Scoop countered that neither the reporter nor his editors tried to contact any of WMATA’s after-hours media contact numbers and instead called the number of the contractor after normal business hours.
WMATA turns the tables
In a final rebuke, the Straight Scoop said: “Mr. Chavez and Fox 5 took advantage of the misfortune of a woman whose wheelchair happened to break to blame Metro when he should have focused on the wonderful service that the local fire and rescue team provided to ensure the woman got the help she needed on a cold winter night when her wheelchair broke.”
Countering all the complaints and inaccuracies disgorged by the public and the media would be too time-consuming for even the “Straight Scoop,” but it must feel good to set the record straight. Let’s hope that even more energy is directed at addressing the legitimate complaints of the public and press.