Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

The MTA projects that it will spend $616 million on Access a Ride this year.

At a City Council hearing last week, disabled riders urged officials not to ration service for a pilot program that allows them to hail yellow and green taxis immediately via an app.

The service, called “On Demand E-hail,” was launched in 2017 to a group of 200 riders and expanded to 1200 riders, a fraction of the over 160,000 elderly and disabled people who are registered to use Access a Ride (AAR), the city’s paratransit service.

The MTA plans to expand the service to 2400 riders, but cap the number of rides per person to 16 a month and cap the per-ride subsidy to $15.

Advocates asked instead that the service be expanded to all riders and permanently funded. The complaints echoed those made at an MTA board meeting last November, after changes to the service were announced.

The program has proven to be incredibly popular with users, especially compared with the MTA’s traditional Access a Ride service, which must be booked one to two days in advance and is plagued by meandering trips and hours of delays. While MTA officials testified on Wednesday that on-time performance for traditional AAR had gone up to 97 percent this year, the agency considers a vehicle on time if it arrives within half an hour of the scheduled time.

But the on-demand service mostly received praise, with riders saying it had changed their lives and angered that it was to be restricted.

”I can go where I want to go without making stops that take me far out of my way,” said Valerie Joseph, the Access A Ride Advocate for the Brooklyn Center for the Disabled, who said the program was life changing.

Johanna Climenko, a mind-body therapist and Access a Ride user, questioned the MTA’s reasoning for rationing it, saying the budget issues with AAR were not due to the pilot.

“To blame the shortfall on 1200 passengers in e-hail is cynical and deceitful,” Climenko said. “It gives people the quality of life to work, visit loved ones.” She said the 1200 users in the pilot program were primarily working people who pay income taxes. Climenko recommended expanding the program not just to benefit disabled riders but the taxi industry.

“It’s working beautifully for beleaguered taxi drivers and disabled passengers whose fates are intertwined,” she said.

“Until AAR is spontaneous it will never meet the expectations of people who want to utilize that service,” said Councilmember Diana Ayala, who was also concerned about new restrictions. Ayala is the chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, which held the hearing jointly with Committee on Transportation and Committee on Aging.

Craig Cipriano, Acting President of MTA Bus Company. Michael Cosgrove, Vice President of Paratransit, Alex Elegudin, Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility all testified on behalf of the MTA at the hearing.

Councilmember Brad Lander, who was also present, said when the pilot was rolled out, he was stunned by how well it worked.

“It’s like one of the best things that’s been done in government,” he said. “A set of people locked out of equal participation in our city now have participation, like magic,” But Lander said new restrictions amounted to pulling the rug out from those riders.

Michael Ring, representing the group Disabled in Action, said he was among those whose use of AAR went up dramatically while in the pilot on-demand e-hail program because of the level of autonomy it offered, but that the $15 subsidy restriction would barely cover the costs for many of his appointments.

“A $15 cap doesn’t do anything. $15 doesn’t get me to Manhattan where my doctors are,” he said.

“They’re clearly trying to sabotage the program by making it useless,” Ring added, a. sentiment that came up often in Wednesday’s hearing.

Ring pointed out that the on-demand app, which allows the freedom of a for-hire vehicle and has a flat $2.75 per ride fare, was the only thing that allowed him to appear at the City Council hearing, as it didn’t have a clear end time. “No one knows when this meeting’s going to end,” he said.“That’s life-changing, that I could be here.”

Frederica Bepler, an intern representing LiveOn NY, testified that the $15 per ride subsidy cap ran counter to the needs of the group’s elderly constituents. She pointed out that Chicago, Boston and DC–three cities that were cited by MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye as models for the subsidy cap– all have more accessible subway systems than NYC.

Daniel Ross, an attorney with Mobilization for Justice, questioned whether the On-Demand program was actually breaking the MTA’s budget. He said in 2018, the pilot program cost a little less than $9 million and this year will cost about $15 million. The MTA told City Limits by e-mail that in 2018, the pilot program cost $8 million and did not have a number ready for 2019 by press time.

The $15 subsidy per ride cap, Ross testified, wouldn’t get riders very far.

“It doesn’t get you to work, it doesn’t get you to your school, it doesn’t get you to the city’s major medical centers. In Brooklyn it barely gets you from one side of Prospect Park to the other,” he said.

Jessica Murray, a CUNY researcher on transportation accessibility, also questioned the MTA’s budgeting. She said that a $40 million increase in administrative costs in this year’s budget could better account for the ballooning Access a Ride budget.

The MTA projects that it will spend $616 million on Access a Ride this year, the NY Post reported in November. NYC pays about $150 million of that, but the MTA has been trying to get the city to pay a larger share, which has been capped at 33 percent since a 1993 agreement.

Other AAR riders including Movement For Black Lives activist Terrea Mitchell pointed out that as the hearing was being held, the MTA board was simultaneously approving a budget that would include $250 million over four years for 500 more police officers.

Alex Elegudin, echoing prior statements by Foye, said at thehearing that that $15 per ride subsidy was based on a cap used in a similar program in Boston. He also said 16 trips a month was the median the MTA was seeing from the pilot program, although Murray, the CUNY researcher argued it would make more sense to base trips on the average trips per month, which is 30.

The MTA announced in a press release last March that they would be extending the pilot through the end of 2019 as well as rolling out another “enhanced broker” service that allows riders to request for-hire vehicles and taxis a day in advance. They announced the pilot would be opened up to more riders but with more restrictions in November. The MTA plans to eventually transition much of its AAR service to taxis and for hire vehicles, but the cost to disabled and elderly riders, and to the MTA, is still being worked out.

“We’d like to see more and more of our paratransit trips delivered by taxis and FHVs in a financially sustainable manner,” MTA CEO Pat Foye said in March. “And we’re beginning by making scheduled taxi trips an increasingly regular feature of our services.”