Danielle Phelps was just trying to get to work. It was 9:30 am when she noticed the MobilityLink van outside her home in Towson waiting for her — right on time. But she thought it strange that she didn’t receive an arrival call. The cell phone service at her home isn’t the best — maybe she missed it? But the driver never came to the door, either — protocol when a rider does not come outside within five minutes of the van arriving. So she headed down the driveway toward the van.
“I was wheeling down the driveway … and I could hear him talking, I’m assuming on the phone,” Phelps recalled. “As I was pretty much to the bus, he just started driving away. I thought he may be turning around to get the ramp side down, but he just drove off.”
Problems like this aren’t new, Phelps said, and are an example of a variety of issues that she and other Mobility riders think have plagued Maryland’s paratransit program for too long. So in 2021, Consumers for Accessible Ride Services, where she is the vice chair, teamed up with Disability Rights Maryland to lodge a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Last month, DOJ investigators wrote in a letter of findings that MTA’s MobilityLink “fails to provide service that is ‘comparable to the level of designated public transportation services provided to individuals without disabilities using such system,’” and therefore violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
“It was so bad that we just had to do something … multiple times everyday we were hearing all kinds of stories,” Gabriel Rubinstein, assistant managing attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, told The Baltimore Banner.
Holly Arnold, the MTA’s administrator, said officials at the agency were surprised to get the letter.
“We’ve been really focused on improving Mobility service over the years, and have been really open about the issues we have been facing,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
Arnold said privately contracted drivers handle the vast majority of Mobility rides, and that performance data has largely improved since new contractors came on board last year.
The initial complaint filed by the two groups in October 2021 details 22 examples of problems that riders have experienced, including late arrivals, missed rides, long telephone wait times for the service’s call center and unsafe conditions on board.
But Rubinstein said that the effects are more far-reaching — missed medical appointments and church services, riders waiting for Mobility vans at night in the rain. He highlighted the story of a woman who was experiencing homelessness who had to spend the night out on the street because her Mobility ride was late getting her to an area shelter.
“People would be stranded, no matter the time, nighttime, in bad weather … left by themselves in potentially bad situations,” Rubinstein said.
Rubinstein and Phelps agree that poor service discourages people with disabilities from even trying to use Mobility in the first place. “And a lot of people, this is their only option for transportation — and you don’t do the things you want to do, you don’t engage with your community or see your friends because of the stress of not knowing where your ride is going to be,” Phelps said.
The DOJ findings highlight two “capacity constraints” that plague MobilityLink — untimely pickups and drop-offs, as well as poor customer telephone service.
On-time performance data on MTA’s website shows a significant dip in timeliness for MobilityLink throughout 2021, the year when the complaint was filed with the DOJ.
“During the pandemic, a lot of folks ceased riding, and we lost a lot of operators at that time,” said Arnold, who cited the low wages being offered by companies as an obstacle to getting more operators back behind the wheel.
Since then, Arnold and the MTA have worked with their contractors to raise operator wages. They also took other steps to improve service, such as bringing on an additional subcontractor, UZURV, that still provides roughly 150 trips per day.
MTA data indicates that they have righted ship, with an average on-time performance of 93% for the second half of 2022. But Rubinstein takes the number with a grain of salt, pointing out that Mobility rides are considered “on time” if they arrive up to 30 minutes after the given time. He also noted that late drop-offs — an issue raised in the DOJ investigation and not captured in on-time performance data — are a recurring issue.
Mobility vans often pick up multiple people with different destinations before dropping anyone off. Phelps noted that on a recent trip, she spent about two hours on board. And she knows that if her ride can’t get her to her destination in roughly the same amount of time as other public transit would, it’s a violation of federal law.
“In my experience, I wouldn’t be on the bus that long — when I get on the bus, I’ve got a watch, I know the time,” she said.
Mobility users can also use a new phone application to schedule rides, a change that many welcome as a way to combat long hold times.
Phelps uses the new app and hopes that it eventually will be a good alternative to phoning the call center. But earlier this week, she put in a request on the app for a 5 p.m. ride, and it gave her 6:15 p.m. When she canceled and phoned the call center instead, she asked for 4 p.m. and got 5 p.m. She said she feels like she’s playing a “numbers game” now, but thinks the app is a step in the right direction.
“I know it’s new — with some improvements, I think it could be great,” she said.
Joshua Wolf, director for Mobility with the MTA, said the agency hopes to hire more phone operators. He also noted that the call center tends to experience peak hours, and they are looking at different ways to schedule workers.
And they should have the funding to do it. Arnold said Mobility saw a $35 million budget increase from fiscal year 2022 to fiscal 2023.
“It’s not a funding issue,” she said.
DOJ outlines improvement areas
The DOJ’s letter outlines five recommended operational reforms, including investing in more vehicles and drivers, ensuring “adequate staffing” to the service’s call center and providing better data metrics to the DOJ.
Arnold said MTA and DOJ officials have met since the letter’s release and that her agency wants to work with federal officials on the issues. She called the process an “ongoing discussion” as MTA looks to parse out exactly what DOJ is looking for.
“I’ll be the first to acknowledge that MTA Mobility has issues — riders have told us that these things move in a cycle, and it’s up to us to break that cycle and earn people’s trust,” Arnold said.
The letter of findings states that if MTA cannot come into compliance voluntarily, the U.S. attorney general could “bring enforcement action in District Court.”
And it’s unclear where a lawsuit could lead. A similar 2010 suit between the Justice Department and Jackson, Mississippi’s transit system ended with a federal consent decree that created an ADA coordinator for the system.
Rubinstein said he is “hopeful” that the investigation will lead to a better rider experience for clients, but that folks have been disappointed before. He pointed to a 2019 letter sent to then-Gov. Larry Hogan and co-signed by more than a dozen organizations highlighting concerns with MobilityLink service.
About 515 vehicles, most of which are provided by contractors, currently provide Mobility services, roughly the same number as in 2019, according to Wolf.
And with the administration of Gov. Wes Moore just six months old, advocates hope that MobilityLink’s problems will get more attention. Though on-time performance has rebounded since the 2021 dip, issues still persist.
“We’re still seeing late pickups and late drop-offs — it’s not as bad currently, but you know, we’ve seen this before where it comes back up and then drops again,” Rubinstein said.
Though Phelps is hopeful, she’s also skeptical — she continues to experience problems just like other riders.
“We’ve had people that have been using Mobility since the ‘90s and prior, and it just seems like it’s the same complaints,” she said.
She submitted a formal complaint to MTA regarding the May morning when her Mobility ride left without her. She’s still awaiting a response.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.