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Comptroller Stringer Access-A-Ride Audit Reveals Widespread Rider Complaint Dysfunction

Shocking new audit finds that 43 percent of Access-A-Ride complaints – from safety concerns to egregious lateness – remained unresolved past MTA’s own deadlines

Thousands of riders’ complaints go unresolved for months, in violation of MTA requirements

Stringer calls for internal MTA Access-A-Ride Ombudsperson to defend public safety and fix bureaucratic breakdowns

A new audit released by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer revealed alarming bureaucratic breakdowns surrounding the MTA’s Access-A-Ride service. In this new audit, the Comptroller’s Office found egregious problems underpinning the MTA’s systems to address tens of thousands of complaints made by riders annually. As a result, complaints have had little impact on persistent failures – delays, no-shows, safety issues, and more – that plague a critical service on which New Yorkers rely.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), public transportation authorities are required to provide a paratransit system for people with disabilities who are unable to use public bus or subway services. Access-A-Ride primarily delivers service through contracts with a network of private vendors, including 13 dedicated carriers and two broker car service providers.

After Comptroller Stringer’s audit two years ago uncovered how tens of thousands of New Yorkers had been left stranded by Access-A-Ride, the Comptroller’s Office began examining what happens when these riders – seniors and New Yorkers with disabilities who rely on the service – call the MTA to flag delays, safety violations, and other concerns. The audit examined more than 21,000 such complaints taken by the agency in 2016.

Rather than finding an organized, competent system to manage tens of thousands of complaints, the Comptroller’s Office discovered that the MTA – which contracts with outside vendors for Access-A-Ride service – doesn’t actually investigate the bulk of rider complaints itself. Instead, it sends those complaints to the private contractors who riders claim have provided shoddy service to begin with. The Comptroller’s Office uncovered massive delays in the contractors’ investigations, and in some cases, no investigations at all – in violation of the agency’s own regulations. Furthermore, the MTA had no evidence that its own employees ever actually assessed the adequacy of contractors’ responses to complaints referred by the MTA. As a result, the agency doesn’t know if the complaints were ever fixed, which heightens the risk to public safety.

Specifically, Comptroller Stringer found:

  • Massive Delays Permeate the Complaint System – 9,125 (43 percent) of 21,274 Access-A-Ride complaints received in 2016 by the Paratransit Customer Relations Unit (CRU) were not evaluated within the MTA’s own mandated timeframes.
  • Deadlines Are Ignored – 4,110 of these overdue complaints – or 45 percent – were not even evaluated within 8 weeks.
  • Safety Issues Are Altogether Overlooked – 96 of these complaints involved potentially serious safety issues, including:
    • Reckless driving,
    • A driver threatening a rider,
    • Drivers using cell phones when vehicles were in motion,
    • Driver not properly securing a wheelchair and failing to assist wheelchair down the ramp, and
    • Discrimination/Racial Remarks.

As a result, Comptroller Stringer is calling for the MTA to create a new position of Access-A-Ride Ombudsperson – whose role is designed to defend the public’s interest – specifically tasked with overhauling the complaint system and fixing the extensive bureaucratic breakdowns within the service.

“When a New Yorker calls the MTA to raise safety concerns or relay complaints about poor service, they expect the agency itself will investigate. But what we’re showing today is that in most cases, that simply doesn’t happen. Instead, for the bulk of the complaints received, it’s passing the buck to the very providers who are accused of causing the problems to begin with. Clearly, if you’re not going to bother to understand or investigate the problems plaguing your service, they’re never going to get fixed,” Comptroller Stringer said. “Our seniors, New Yorkers with disabilities, and people from across the five boroughs depend on this service. But we know that it’s failing New Yorkers. Big changes must happen, because we find ourselves back here again astonished at the lack of accountability at the agency. New Yorkers are being let down by their own government, and ultimately, that puts people at risk. That’s why we’re calling for an internal Access-A-Ride ombudsperson who will fight for the public’s interest within the agency.”

Auditors took an in depth look at a sample of 145 complaints and found the following:

  • In one case—unresolved 140 days after referral—a rider alleged that the Access-A-Ride driver was an hour late, drove 80 mph in a 40 mph zone, and swerved in and out of traffic. The MTA had no evidence of any investigative results recorded in its complaint-management system and no evidence of any follow-up by the Paratransit CRU.
  • In another case a customer was reportedly injured when the speeding Access‑A‑Ride driver hit a bump, causing the vehicle to be lifted in the air and break one of its wheels. The MTA’s complaint-management system showed that the complaint went unanswered for 95 days, before the Paratransit CRU obtained a response. (The MTA’s contracted Access-A-Ride carrier pulled the driver off the road, pending a hearing.)
  • 13 complaints (3 safety-related and 10 others) that appeared to warrant investigation were never investigated. The issues included a rider injury, a late pick-up, the wrong pick-up location, unreasonable trip time, the lack of driver’s assistance, a rude driver, and a malfunctioning vehicle air conditioner. MTA officials agreed that 11 of these complaints should have been investigated.
  • 9 complaints that the Paratransit CRU referred out for investigation were either resolved late, from 19 to 95 days after referral, or remained unresolved and long-overdue, from 71 to 273 days after referral.
  • 6 of the 9 overdue or unresolved complaints that were referred for investigation involved safety issues.

The audit revealed critical gaps and weaknesses in the MTA’s procedures, which contributed to the widespread deficiencies found.

  • Although the MTA’s primary method of investigating Access-A-Ride complaints is to refer them, through the Paratransit Contract Management Unit, to the Access-A-Ride contractors – the companies that employ the drivers and operate and maintain the Access-A-Ride vehicles—the MTA has no written policies and procedures governing such investigations or defining the Contract Management Unit’s responsibility for verifying and assessing the results.
  • The MTA had no evidence that Paratransit Contract Managers assessed the adequacy of contractors’ responses to complaints that the MTA referred to them for investigation.
  • As a result, there was limited assurance that complaints were adequately addressed by the contractors, which increased the risk to public safety.
  • The MTA’s complaint-management system still in use at the time of the audit did not capture critical data—such as referral dates and destinations—that would allow Paratransit agents to automatically flag aging and overdue referrals for follow-up.
  • MTA staff used their own judgment in deciding how complaints should be disposed of, with no formal criteria or oversight.
  • The MTA’s complaint-management system is supposed to automatically assign unique, 12-digit, sequential reference numbers to each complaint and incident reported by a rider or member of the public, but the audit found that 26,000 reference numbers were missing and unaccounted for. That gap could mean that complaints went unrecorded and unaddressed. (The system tracks not only Access-A-Ride complaints but reported incidents involving all MTA divisions.)

To ensure timely investigations of rider complaints that improve safety, reduce no-shows, and strengthen reliability, Comptroller Stringer issued a series of recommendations to the MTA as part of this audit, including that it review all unresolved complaints identified in this audit, ensure they’re appropriately addressed, and that it establish formal written guidelines for evaluating, investigating, and tracking complaints that are brought to its attention.

Comptroller Stringer’s new audit today comes after a 2016 Access-A-Ride audit revealed that disabled and elderly Access-A-Ride passengers were left stranded over 31,000 times in 2015. In that audit, the MTA did not provide a response or make an effort to refute the report. In today’s new audit, the MTA agreed with the Comptroller’s findings and recommendations.

To read Comptroller Stringer’s full Access-A-Ride audit released today, click here.

To read Comptroller Stringer’s May 2016 audit of Access-A-Ride, click here.