AUSTIN (KXAN) — Dominic Longoria is an Austin Community College student who uses MetroAccess to get around.
The Capital Metro service helps transport people whose disabilities prevent them from taking other buses.
But Longoria tells KXAN the rides aren’t as simple as getting from Point A to Point B.
“There’s a lot of delays,” he said. “They’ll get me to school or a doctor’s appointment late.”
At best, delays are a minor inconvenience for the program’s roughly 6,000 registered riders.
At worst, older riders or those with medical issues miss key health appointments.
That’s why KXAN investigators began looking into CapMetro and its contractor, MTM, which operates MetroAccess.
We looked at two metrics: on-time performance and missed trips.
“On-time performance” is measured by whether a driver arrives during the rider’s 30-minute operating window. For example, if a rider is scheduled to be picked up at 10:15, the window is between 10 and 10:30.
A number of scenarios can result in a missed trip, including: the driver arriving more than one hour after the rider’s operating window, a trip not completed, transporting the wrong rider, or dropping the rider off at the wrong location.
KXAN found that in September, CapMetro fined MTM $5,000 for on-time performance issues.
That same month, it fined its contractor $6,700 for missed trips, an overall number on the rise since 2017.
KXAN asked Chad Ballentine, Cap Metro’s V.P. for Demand Response and Innovative Mobility, about whether this was a lot of money going toward fines.
He said, “I would say yes,” before saying, “It’s not terrible.”
He mentioned that the thousands of dollars incurred in fines make up only about one to two percent of what MTM is paid.
Ballentine then added that CapMetro’s expectations for agency contractors are high.
“We really are very strict with our service providers,” he said. “We’re making sure that we’re capturing every single time there’s an incident.”
Over the last two years, MTM’s on-time performance has dipped (FY17 = 93.3%, FY18 = 91.6%, FY19 = 91.1%).
In general, FTA Office of Civil Right Compliance reviews have cited 90% as acceptable on-time performance for ADA complementary paratransit. MetroAccess’ own goal is 92%.
A software solution
Longoria believes the delays and late pick-ups come from Cap Metro dispatchers overbooking the drivers.
By Federal ADA law, CapMetro is not allowed to turn down a customer’s request for a ride, which often makes for a full bus.
“There was one time they actually had me on the bus four hours because the dispatchers kept giving the riders add-ons all over town,” remembered Longoria.
CapMetro uses operations software that schedules each trip based on algorithms.
The software has received many updates. It dates back to the 1990s.
Ballentine told KXAN the software recently went through an update that he believes is partially responsible for the delays riders are seeing.
“We’ve been struggling through a few upgrade issues,” he said.
Ballentine says other transit agencies use the same software that is at least two decades old.
That said, CapMetro is ditching it.
“We could do better, and that’s why we’re replacing it,” he said.
CapMetro is now soliciting bids for a new route scheduling system. Staff is hopeful it can bring a recommendation to the agency’s Board of Directors in March.
From there, Ballentine says it could take three months to a year to fully implement.
He also says the agency is working on a user-friendly phone app for MetroAccess users.
He said overall, he remains satisfied with the job MTM is doing.
With few other options, Longoria and other riders are looking to CapMetro for changes.
“I just hope the dispatchers don’t keep their clients on the bus for long amounts of time,” he said.