MetroAccess has stopped growing after years of double-digit ridership growth that was increasing costs for Metro.
The slowdown has occurred because Metro raised the fares on the federally mandated service for disabled riders, tightened eligibility on who can ride, and trained some 5,800 riders to take buses and trains instead of the pricey $40-per-ride paratransit service.
But disability rights advocates, riders and drivers say the policy changes have tightened the net too much and have hurt riders.
Drivers have said they are paying fares out of their own pockets for riders who can't afford them, as the The Washington Examiner reported in March. And the new fare system is so confusing, advocates say, that riders don't know how much they will pay to the take the same trip from one day to the next.
"It's just a nightmare," said Patrick Sheehan, who heads the agency's Accessibility Advisory Committee.
In the past year, the transit agency raised fares twice from a base of $2.50 to up to $7 per one-way trip. Instead of having a set fare, the amount was calculated as twice the comparable bus or rail fare.
But Sheehan said his committee found that a trip booked for 8 a.m. could cost $4 less than the same trip 30 minutes later, leaving riders unable to budget their travel.
The problem is that the fare system charges double what the fastest rail or bus trip would be at that time. But Sheehan said that means that if a bus has just left, the system will calculate the more expensive rail option so a trip could cost more. It doesn't let riders pick the cheapest option, which he said is difficult for riders who are often struggling with medical costs.
The Accessibility Advisory Committee had warned that the fare hikes would be too confusing and recommended a fixed fare. "We're trying to come back to the board and say 'We think you've made a mistake,'" Sheehan said.
In response, the transit agency will review its fare policy as part of next year's budget discussions, Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said.
After growing some 20 percent a year, the paratransit service's ridership stayed steady through the past budget year, even dropping by 5,429 rides for the first 11 months of the budget compared with the year before, according to Metro. That's less than 1 percent fewer rides, but the agency had expected ridership to grow; it finished 13 percent below expectations by the end of May.
In the past, the growth was so big, Metro had to kick in extra money to the contractor mid-year. The current contract with MV Transportation is on its last stage so the agency is looking to bid out for a new one.