The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is forecasting that a program for disabled residents is contributing to an unexpected $321 million increase in projected costs through 2022, adding to the agency’s budget troubles. The pilot program, which started last year, allows qualified riders to take taxis instead of specialized vans and buses. It has been hugely popular with paratransit customers, taking more than 1.5 million cab rides over the past year.

The rising expense places the MTA in a difficult position as the pilot approaches a spring 2019 conclusion: rein in expenses, possibly by curtailing trips, or finance the added costs.

Earlier this year, MTA officials said the program’s popularity had added tens of millions of dollars to annual costs. But MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran revealed the scale of the potential longer-term cost through 2022 at an agency board meeting in November. The increased expense comes at a difficult time for the MTA, which faces declining passenger revenues on the subway and buses and a potential deficit by 2022 of $1 billion.

The agency is seeking to raise funds through a net 4% fare and toll hike projected to begin in March 2019. Meanwhile, the MTA, which has a $17 billion budget, is trying to cut costs by delaying the rollout of new Select Bus Service routes, reducing staffing for fare-evasion patrols on buses and freezing nonessential hiring authority-wide.

The MTA has long faced criticism for its paratransit program. Riders say the service has been frequently late and can take long diversions as vehicles pick up and drop off other passengers. The MTA launched a pilot e-hail program in October 2017 that allows up to 1,200 people to book a ride in a green or yellow cab at a moment’s notice. Through September, those people had taken 144,000 trips, according to MTA data. The pilot also allows a larger pool of paratransit customers to take green and yellow cab rides. In total, paratransit customers have taken more than 1.5 million cab rides over the past year.

The e-hail program costs $36 per ride on average, compared with an average of $69 for the same Access-A-Ride trip, according to the MTA. But cabs are so popular that paratransit ridership is soaring. Average monthly paratransit trips in the 12 months through September 2018 rose 11% to 560,000. About one-third of those rides used the e-hail program.

At its current rate, the MTA expects its annual paratransit service contract costs, which include deals with blue-and-white branded vehicles, to rise to $548 million by 2022, up from $393 million in 2017. Veronica Vanterpool, who heads the agency’s paratransit task force, said that the MTA needs to find a way of making the program sustainable.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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