MARTA defends service for the metro Atlanta disabled in court


MARTA is in court this week defending itself against complaints that its paratransit service is so unreliable it violates federal law.

In testimony Wednesday, several disabled passengers and the relatives of others said paratransit buses often don’t show up on time, making them late for work or school.

“I’ve had some good days with MARTA. I’ve had some bad days,” said Sherman Baker, one of the plaintiffs, who testified he lost his job because MARTA consistently made him late. “My bad days outweigh my good days.”

The passengers’ attorney, Georgia Lord, says MARTA should be held in contempt of court for violating a judge’s 2002 order to improve paratransit service. She’s seeking nearly $7.6 million in compensation for passengers.

MARTA says it’s made plenty of changes and is still trying to improve the service, but says it can’t be on time for every pickup.

“Any time anyone has made recommendations to improve services, MARTA has implemented that effort,” the agency’s attorney, John Lowery, told U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Thrash Jr. on Tuesday.

As required by federal law, MARTA provides on-call transit service to disabled persons who live near its regular transit lines. On a typical weekday it provides up to 2,300 trips to the disabled. The agency outsourced the service to a private company last year, but an arbitration panel recently overturned that decision. MARTA has appealed.

The company has a pool of nearly 350 drivers to serve paratransit customers, and MARTA spends about $25 million on the service.

This week’s court hearings stem from a 2001 lawsuit brought by several disabled customers of MARTA’s paratransit service. The lawsuit said the service violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled in transportation and other public accommodations.

Among other things, the customers complained of buses that were up to two hours late, wheelchair lifts and elevators that didn’t function and MARTA employees who were poorly trained to assist them. In 2002 Thrash issued an injunction ordering MARTA to improve the service to comply with federal law.

The plaintiffs continued to monitor MARTA’s compliance with that injunction, and found it lacking. In 2015, they filed a motion asking Thrash to hold MARTA in contempt of his order.

Instead of improving, the plaintiffs argue MARTA’s paratransit service has become worse. They cited a 2012 Federal Transit Administration review that found MARTA may have improperly denied paratransit service to some people who were eligible.

Among other things, the FTA also found MARTA provided on-time service just 59 percent of the time on the day examined [buses are considered “on time” if they arrive up to 30 minutes after the scheduled pickup]. And it found that one out of every six paratransit riders with a known appointment arrived late.

Riders cite more problems

In court documents, MARTA says it has addressed the vast majority of problems raised in the lawsuit – in some cases going beyond what is required by law. Among other things, MARTA says it has added paratransit buses and operators to improve service, improved wheelchair access on buses, bolstered employee training and required employees to make all necessary stop announcements to aid blind passengers.

But passengers say late paratransit buses are still a problem.

Jacqueline Wiley’s son Donald, who has cerebral palsy, used MARTA’s paratransit service each weekday to get to school and on Sundays to get to church. She told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it was late five or six times a month.

Once a MARTA driver picked him up in the evening and mistakenly drove him to Emory Hospital instead of to his home, she said. He sat in the emergency room for 90 minutes until MARTA and his mother figured out his location.

Another parent testified that MARTA once set out to drive her daughter, who has a genetic disorder with a mild intellectual disability, to South Carolina by accident. By the time she reached her daughter, they were in Commerce. MARTA’s attorney said the driver was fired.

MARTA argues that its on-time performance has improved recently, and agency statistics back that up. Its paratransit buses arrived on time just 77 percent of the time in April 2016, but on-time performance reached 90 percent a year later.

Tom Young, MARTA’s director of mobility services, testified Wednesday that paratransit buses have arrived on time more than 91 percent of the time so far this month.

In court documents, MARTA says it maintains on-time performance at the “highest level attainable,” but – despite its best efforts – “on time performance of paratransit services waxes and wanes and seemingly defies a permanent, talismanic fix.”

“While MARTA acknowledges that additional work still remains in some areas in order to attain a satisfactory level of service, MARTA remains committed to their achievement,” the agency said.

The judge’s decision is not expected for several months.

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