Metro’s new on-demand cab program for disabled slowly picks up steam

WASHINGTON — A program meant to save Metro millions is off to a slow start but may be picking up steam.

The Abilities-Ride paratransit alternative that launched last year for trips within Maryland was used for 8,219 trips by 515 customers in the first 4 1/2 months. About half of those trips were taken in January, when usage began to significantly increase. Of those 8,219 total trips, 475 have required wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

Metro estimates that those 8,219 trips saved $287,665, compared with the cost if each of those trips had been taken using the MetroAccess service.

As part of the new program, eligible customers use on-demand cab services at a discounted rate.

While many users have praised the program since its delayed launch, Metro’s goal for the first full year of the program was 150,000 trips and a savings of about $5 million, compared with the more-expensive MetroAccess. Documents prepared for a Metro Board committee this week now set those goals for the next 12 months after what the agency described as a “soft launch” that ended Feb. 28.

“Metro plans to greatly increase customer outreach and marketing to build Abilities-Ride ridership,” the documents said.

The agency is sending out refrigerator magnets, contacting MetroAccess users and printing new brochures for newly eligible riders, emphasizing alternatives to MetroAccess. It also plans to send postcards and publish a testimonial video from Abilities-Ride users. In addition, Metro is considering some free trial trips.

With an increasing number of people across the region qualifying for MetroAccess use due to a disability that prevents some or all use of the rail or bus system — or that prevents access to a bus stop or rail station — Metro has been concerned about rising costs.

While a MetroAccess trip costs Metro around $50, an Abilities-Ride trip costs Metro $15.

Riders pay up to $6.50 for a MetroAccess trip. For an Abilities-Ride trip, the rider pays the first $5 of the cab fare plus any amount over $20. Paratransit trips can be taken from anywhere within three-quarters of a mile of a Metro rail or bus stop to another location within three-quarters of a mile of a Metro rail or bus stop. The cab companies involved in the Abilities-Ride pilot program require that trips be at least 7 to 9 miles.

The Abilities-Ride pilot program that began Sept. 18 is run by Metro for trips within Maryland, but similar MetroAccess alternatives run by other agencies exist in D.C. and Virginia, as Metro continues to consider whether to expand Abilities-Ride to cover trips to, from or between the other jurisdictions.

In the District, the Transport DC program provides $5 cab rides to eligible users. In Virginia, STAR and Fastran offer rides for up to $9. Only Abilities-Ride and Transport DC allow riders to set up a ride within minutes or hours by contacting specific cab companies. MetroAccess requires a ride to be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance.

The District pays cab companies $23 per trip for the Transport DC program, less than half of Metro’s cost for a MetroAccess ride.

Metro and the region also support similar transportation options provided by local human services agencies.

Anyone eligible for MetroAccess is permitted to ride regular Metrobus and rail routes free of charge to encourage cheaper forms of travel.

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