Making improvements to Twin Cities area paratransit services calls for Metropolitan Council and Minnesota Legislature action in the months ahead. Recommendations proposed by a task force are touted as providing flexibility and expanding service, while remaining in compliance with state and federal regulations. But the notion of using companies like Uber and Lyft as part of the region’s future paratransit system drew criticism from some Metropolitan Council members.
They contend that the transportation network companies or TNCs don’t do adequate driver background checks to keep riders safe.
Metro Mobility is the paratransit service of Metropolitan Council. It is for certified riders who are unable to use regular fixed-route bus service due to disability or a health condition. A 53-page report by the Metro Mobility Task Force was reviewed February 28 by a legislative committee and Metropolitan Council.
No timeline has been set up for either group to act on the task force recommendations. Meetings with stakeholder groups continue this spring, and Metro Mobility “Community Conversation” is set for Thursday, April 5. Other next steps include improved customer communications, the rollout of the new Metro Mobility website, exploratory meetings with TNC companies and partnerships with disability advocacy groups to augment driver training.
The report includes four service-level approaches that include the integration of taxi services and/or TNCs into the paratransit system. That is seen as a way to provide more and better service. Metro Mobility in recent years has seen rising demand for service, along with rising costs. Operating costs were $64.8 million in 2016, with 2.26 million riders. Costs are projected to increase to $81.8 million by 2020, with ridership estimated at 2.45 million.
The Metro Mobility Service Center manages the service and works with private companies. There are seven contracts currently held by five providers, as well as taxi and special transportation services (STS) providers. Metro Mobility ridership is increasing as more people are certified to use the service. As ridership increases, so too do costs, reaching a cost per passenger per trip of $29.89 in 2016. Passenger fares, restricted by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, contribute 10 percent of Metro Mobility revenue. Appropriations from the State General Fund make up the rest.
All regional transit services, including paratransit, have been squeezed by factors including rising demand, inflation and a projected decline in motor vehicle sales tax revenue. As part of an overall transit fare increase package approved last year, Metro Mobility users are now paying $3.50 to $4.50 per ride, as well as an additional 75-cent surcharge for trips greater than 15 miles. Transit Link Dial-A-Ride fares increased on average by $1.60 and include a 75-cent distance surcharge. The fare hikes were sought to counter a $110 million transit budget deficit anticipated by fiscal 2020-2021.
The report’s advocacy for the TNCs drew questions from some Metropolitan Council members. Metropolitan Council Member Edward Reynoso said he is concerned about potential liability. He also said that if a customer using a TNC for paratransit has a bad experience, that reflects on Metro Transit’s reputation. But his greatest worry is for safety of riders.
Several states recently have passed laws demanding more stringent background checks for TNC drivers, to ensure the safety and security of passengers who use the popular ride-hailing applications. Uber faces a class action lawsuit filed by two anonymous women, who contend that they and other passengers have been sexually assaulted by drivers whose backgrounds weren’t scrutinized.
A flash point between TNCs and several states’ regulatory agencies has been the call for drivers to undergo background checks that include fingerprints. TNCs have contended that a fingerprint requirement would be too onerous and have waged legal fights against such requirements.
Some states have fined the TNCs for not performing adequate background checks. In fall 2017 the Colorado Public Utilities Commission issued a civil penalty notice against Uber, for $8.9 million “for allowing individuals with disqualifying criminal or motor vehicle offenses, or without valid licenses, to drive for the company.” The notice listed violations involving 57 Uber drivers who should not have been permitted to drive.
Another issue Reynoso raised is that of “surge pricing” used by TNCs. That is, higher demand for service means higher costs for riders. He said that could result in TNCs dictating the paratransit rules to Metropolitan Council, instead of the council having control.
Task force history and recommendations
The Metro Mobility Task Force was established in 2017 by the Minnesota Legislature as part of the omnibus transportation bill. The study was called for after a series of service issues with Metro Mobility. The task force was to prepare a report by February 15, 2018 that would describe the current Metro Mobility program and identify options for reducing program costs and improving
efficiency. Another charge was to identify at least three potential service level approaches that involve partnering with and incorporating transportation network companies, taxi service providers, or both. Recommendations were also to be made for program and legislative changes, for Metropolitan Council and state lawmakers. The task force approved its report in February, one day before it was due.
The 18-member task force met seven times, with additional subgroup meetings. It included seven county representatives. Six were county commissioners, with Dakota County appointing a West St. Paul City Council member who has a family member with a disability. ARMM was represented, as was the Minnesota Council on Disability, Minnesota Management and Budget, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Uber, Lyft, the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, two transportation companies and one Metropolitan Council member. The various TNC and transportation company representatives and Metropolitan Council representatives were non-voting.
The proposal calls for four opt-in services at minimum, for STS medical assistance providers and non-STS providers including taxis and/or TNCs. There could be shared and premium services. Service could be on-demand or for rides booked in advance. These services would have limited lift or ramp capacity. The premium level services wouldn’t be eligible for federal funding.
Not all the potential services could be used by all Metro Mobility customers. Some may continue to need vans that can accommodate wheelchair lifts. Other customers may be able to, with assistance, get into a TNC vehicle or taxi.
“The task force recognizes the potential for expanded service options to enhance the current service and provide options for those customers who may not need the level of service provided by the base system,” the report stated. “Adding service options will create a more diversified system that has the potential to expand consumer choice, improve base system capacity, and reduce the average cost per trip. Expanded service options should be implemented on a pilot basis to fully understand the impact to ridership and costs.”
The options would be supplemental to the Metro Mobility base service. An agreement to pilot and promote the four services would be in place by March 31, 2019. This would be overseen by Metropolitan Council.
A DHS client transportation service model could be added later.
Director of Metropolitan Transportation Services Nick Thompson outlined advantages and disadvantages to the opt-in service. opt-in services would allow for the growing demand on the base system to be distributed. The varying levels of service could provide additional capacity for varying needs. Premium options would provide faster trips than shared rides. There is the potential to have overall lower costs per trip.
But there is risk exposure. Adding various levels of service adds complexity to an already complicated system. “This would become a system that is a lot more complicated for our customers,” Thompson said. “For some it is too complex today.”
Customers would have curb to curb service with opt-in services rather than door-to-door. That wouldn’t work for everyone. Accessible fleet limitations, which could be a possible civil rights violation, raised red flags. Drivers wouldn’t be regulated by state STS, nor the Federal Transit Administration, including random drug and alcohol tests, reasonable suspicion guidelines and driving training. There would be no requirements on on-board cameras. Safety and security concerns would be heightened for vulnerable populations.
State lawmakers are asked to provide funding to study and invest in technology innovations such as a single-point reservation system. Customers could choose between all available service options when scheduling a ride. Another ask is to provide incentives to increase the number of on-demand accessible vehicles operated by private companies to increase availability to persons with accessibility needs and provide an equivalent response time for all customers using on-demand services.
Another key change would be to facilitate collaboration between DHS and Metro Mobility by modifying data practices language to allow the agencies to share available non-medical data for limited purposes. That would allow Metro Mobility to leverage additional federal dollars for waivered service and medical assistance client transportation.
Yet another request to state lawmakers is to establish a dedicated funding source to ensure Metro Mobility demand is met.
Thompson said Metro Mobility is already making changes to improve service. In October 2017 the driver minimum wage was raised by $2. A limited pilot group ride program began in December 2017, with incentives for off-peak groups. An example of this is a shopping trip for several people in a senior housing facility or group home.
Premium Same Day customers are now being allowed to book rides up to four days in advance, as well as same day. A fixed route transfer program and a van leasing pilot program are in progress.
Read the report and learn more about the task force here.