FINANCIAL DISTRICT — The MTA board shut down complaints about the Access-a-Ride program from disabled riders at a public meeting Wednesday, telling the straphangers that it had "important business" to attend to.
MTA Acting Chair Fernando Ferrer cut off the public comment period of the hearing after about two dozen speakers had voiced their concerns, with dozens more still waiting to speak.
Ferrer invited them to air their complaints at the end of the hearing and made arrangements with Access-a-Ride drivers to wait for them, but most advocates had cleared out before then.
"We will hear every one of you after we have concluded this important business," Ferrer said.
In response the riders chanted "shame, shame, shame" and complained that that they'd miss their Access-a-Ride home if they had to wait until the end of the meeting to testify.
"They don't care. It's coming in one ear, it's going out the other. How disrespectful it is. Do you know what it took to get us out here on time, the whole community," said Yesenia Torres, 43, a Brooklyn Center for Independence systems manager who uses a motorized wheelchair since she suffered a severe spinal chord injury in a car crash more than two decades ago. Whenever she tries to log complaints about drivers or Access-a-Ride service she's told to take it up with the MTA, she said.
"So we're here and look what the MTA is doing. They're ignoring us."
The group of about 60 Access-a-Ride users turned up at the MTA's board meeting in motorized and manual wheelchairs, with the support of walkers and canes and alongside service dogs, all to decry what they see as increasingly poor service on the city's para-transit system.
They rattled off a list of problems, including indirect routes that loop through multiple boroughs before reaching the destination, the unbearable wait times, the drivers who strand them in the cold or rain, the three strikes system where you can get booted from the program if a driver says you didn't show up, even if you were on the curb, and for having to front money to taxis and wait months for reimbursement from the MTA if the Access-a-Ride driver is a no-show.
Straphangers Campaign staff lawyer and spokesman, Gene Russianoff, 63, who uses a wheelchair due to his Parkinson's Disease dubbed the service, "Stress-a-ride," and rattled off a list of "10 plagues of the current Access-a-Ride program" which included late rides, overstuffed cars, lying about when drivers will arrive and other qualms.
Advocates are calling for reforms to the system with more data on quality of service, more transparent complaint process, on-demand service so you don't have to book a ride a day in advance, according to a list of demands for the Center for Independence of the Disabled of New York and other groups.
Everyone gathered had an Access-a-Ride horror story — the time they'd missed an important job interview, class or appointment, or had been stranded until the wee hours of the morning.
"You never know when you're gonna get home," Torres said.
In 2015, 31,492 riders were stranded without rides and less than 50 percent of trips were on time, according to an audit from the city's comptroller.
While the city has one of the largest paratransit systems in the nation, it's also paying one of the highest rates per ride, according to an analysis from the Citizens Budget Commission.
Each ride costs around $57.86 after being adjusted for regional price difference, a rate that's second only to Austin, Texas, according to the same study.
Around 144,700 New Yorkers use paratransit services, as of 2015, the second highest number of riders after Los Angeles. And in 2014 the New York City had the most actual trips at 6,446,134 paratransit trips which cost around $456 million.
"I'm unhappy with Access-a-Ride too. I think the board doesn't have a level of contentment with how we provide that service. It hasn't for quite some time," said Ferrer, speaking to reporters at the end of the board meeting.
Ferrer said he and the full MTA board would discuss Access-a-Ride issues at next month's meeting. "We're having discussions on how we can improve it. We want to have some ideas ready for our next meeting."
"We're intent on changing it and making it better."