Youth service program City Year fills Metro ‘mystery rider’ gap

Local,Kytja Weir

Metro plans to drop its nearly $1 million “mystery rider” contract this month amid tight budget constraints one year after it began. But a second program — free to Metro, and secret to some of the system’s own leaders — is under way to critique the transit system.

Members of City Year, a nearly yearlong youth service program similar to a domestic version of the Peace Corps, have been writing up to 100 reports each week since January about their experience on Metro.

The “secret shopper”-type program was commissioned by the District, which is paying $150,000 for the corps members’ transit passes, which they use to travel to schools across the city for their work as tutors and mentors.

That’s less than the $195,000 the transit agency expects to pay to Maryland firm Widener-Burrows & Associates for the first year of a $916,000 contract for its mystery rider program. And Metro doesn’t have to pay City Year.

Metro board member Christopher Zimmerman, who represents Arlington, said he did not know the City Year program was conducting the evaluation until Metro Chairman Jim Graham mentioned it in a recent Metro board meeting.

“I’m certainly interested in what they’ve done and what they found,” he said.

Zimmerman had pushed for Metro to have a program that would send paid, undercover researchers to assess the system’s service and quality. The transit system raised fares in January 2008, he said, so riders expected the quality of their rides to improve at the same time.

The transit service signed a contract last June with Widener-Burrows for up to five years of quarterly reports detailing what the paid mystery riders found.

But when the agency looked to bridge a $154 million budget gap this spring, Metro decided to cut the program before a single report had been made public.

Zimmerman doesn’t want to see the mystery rider program dropped. He said the transit system needed a “regular, systematic” way of assessing quality.

“This is a very low-cost item with potentially huge impact,” he said. “To drop it after it started would be a waste.”

Other board members, though, have asked for volunteer programs instead. They are slated to hear the results from the City Year program later this month.



The details

What: City Year’s corps members are evaluating the Metro system with weekly reports about their rides, assessing the conduct of operators, cleanliness and other aspects of their trips.

Who: City Year, a full-time community service program for 17- to 24-year-olds, has 85 corps members working in the District. The next class is expected to have 100.

How: The corps members use Metro to travel to schools around the city.

Why: The District agreed to pay the program $150,000 for train and bus passes in exchange for members’ assessments of Metro.

When: City Year is compiling the results of its findings and plans to present a report to Metro this month.

Source: City Year Executive Director Jeff Franco

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