Program for Disabled Riders Tightens Rules
By Era Sundar
Capital Metro’s Metro Access program provides door-to-door and subsidized taxi services to about 6,000 disabled customers in Austin. The program is designed to help anyone who can’t use the regular bus and rail system.
But some say changes made last year to Cap Metro’s application process could be reducing the number of people who qualify for the service.
The old application process consisted of three steps. Disabled customers filled out a Metro Access application, had it signed by a doctor, and then sent it off to Cap Metro.
Under the new system, a doctor’s signature is still required. But since last August, Cap Metro also requires an in-person interview. An evaluation by a Cap Metro occupational therapist may also be conducted in certain cases.
So far, the new requirements have been met with mixed reviews.
Faith in Action Caregivers in West Austin helps older adults with transportation and other needs so they can live independently. “We’ve had an increase in clients because of them being turned down by Metro Access,” said Jean Teel, the group’s executive director. “We’ve even had a client who was previously on the Metro Access system who now, when they went through the new process, is no longer applicable.”
While the new requirement may prevent more people from qualifying, some see that as a positive effect.
Nancy Crowther of American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit says in-person interviews aren’t unusual.
“You have to go through evaluations for any kind of benefits you’re getting, period, if you’re a person with a disability,” Crowther said. “So it’s nothing new to the process. For Capital Metro it’s new only because they had a flood of people on the service that weren’t really eligible.”
All of Cap Metro’s fixed-route buses and trains are wheelchair-accessible. The agency is working with the city to make sure that sidewalks are connected to make public transportation easier. However, Crowther says some people prefer the more expensive door-to-door service.
Cap Metro says each ride on Metro Access costs taxpayers about $50 per passenger. The same trip on a regular city bus or train costs less than $4.
Chad Ballentine, director of paratransit at Cap Metro, says the in-person interviews and assessments by Cap Metro occupational therapists are about not just savings but efficiency as well.
“We were not getting accurate information, so people were falsely getting approved or falsely getting denied,” Ballentine said. “The problem is, doctors aren’t transit professionals. That’s where the occupational therapist comes in. Because they’re transit professionals and they’re medical professionals, they can understand how that disability affects their ability to ride on the fixed route.”
Any customer who has been denied eligibility for Metro Access can appeal the decision. Cap Metro says it doesn’t have any solid numbers on how many people are being denied or approved, since the changes were only put in place last August.
The new eligibility requirements are not the only changes to Metro Access. Ballentine says a training facility has been installed at Cap Metro’s Transit Store on Congress Avenue to help people figure out how to use the regular bus system. There’s a portion of a bus in the building to let customers practice getting on and off the bus.
The facility also has areas that look like bus stops so that passengers can become familiar with getting around stops with different terrain such as grass or gravel. The training area is open to all Cap Metro customers, whether they have a disability or not.