The St. Louis region’s public transit agency plans to “improve customer service” by making cuts to its paratransit system serving those with disabilities.

It’s a move disability rights advocates have decried as a “cruel” solution to a real problem.

Metro Transit’s paratransit system, which is called Call-A-Ride, provides services for those with disabilities in St. Louis city and St. Louis county, as required by federal law. Customers with disabilities can call to reserve a ride in a wheelchair-accessible van, which provides curb-to-curb service rather than operating on a fixed route.

For years, customers have faced steep wait times and high rates of denials for the service. 

At the heart of the issue is staffing. Metro said this month that 40% of operator positions for Call-A-Ride are unfilled, while demand for rides “has increased substantially.”

In January, roughly 18,000 of the 47,000 requests for Call-A-Ride had to be denied, Metro wrote in a letter to advocates this week.

The agency hopes the cuts — which it has estimated will impact 250 people — will make the service more reliable for those traveling within the adjusted boundaries.

“It will help us reduce trip denials, reduce phone wait times, and provide more reliable paratransit service while making sure we continue to follow federal requirements,” Jeffrey Butler, general manager of Metro’s paratransit, wrote in a letter to a coalition of advocacy groups this week.

Robyn Wallen, a St. Louis County resident with disabilities who has utilized Call-A-Ride over the last several decades and serves as transportation chair for Missouri Council of the Blind, said she and others have been pushing Metro to look into solutions to issues with the service for years. She called news of cuts “frustrating,” and hopes the agency will investigate alternatives.

“I know they’re not meeting their basic minimum standards for service,” Wallen said in an interview with The Independent. 

“What frustrates us the most is that this is not a new problem. It’s been going on for a while now.”

Wallen does not live in a region that will be cut, but said all riders could be affected — for instance, if they need to visit a specialist doctor in the area that will no longer be served.

“These cuts actually affect more than just the 250 riders they are saying, but every single customer who may have a need to go into those areas,” Wallen said. “It affects every single one of us.”

Wallen said she heard from the family of a son with disabilities that they worry he won’t be able to get to his job anymore once the cuts take effect, because he works in an area that Call-A-Ride will no longer serve.

“One of the things you learn as a disabled person is it’s hard to get a job…and when you do get a job, what happens if suddenly your transportation is no longer there?” she said.

Patti Beck, a spokesperson for Metro, said by email that over six months last year, 250 customers of 4,000 total made 10 or more regular trip requests and would not be eligible for the service beginning April 10. Beck added that the “majority of the customers…will not be impacted” because their origination and destination trips are within the federally-required service area, and that Metro is “here to make sure our customers know that there are other possible transportation resources” if their trips fall outside the service area.

The cuts, announced at the beginning of this month, are slated to be implemented April 10 and will impact some areas in North County, West County, the Fenton area, and Southwest St. Louis County.

“Reducing the number of consumers served is a cruel solution to a very real problem,” Aimee Wehmeier, president of the disability advocacy group Paraquad, said in a press release earlier this month. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires cities that provide bus or rail service to also provide comparable services for those with disabilities who are unable to use public transportation, to cover three-quarters of a mile from each public transit route. 

St. Louis has not updated its paratransit service map since 2016. In 2019 and over the course of the COVID pandemic, several bus routes were suspended, eliminating the federal mandate to provide paratransit there.

“How did we decide where we’re cutting Call-A-Ride service? That is the same places that we have cut bus service,” Amy Parker, the ADA coordinator for Metro, said in a March video. “And these should move in parallel.”

A coalition of individuals and organizations, including Paraquad and Missouri Council for the Blind, asked the agency in a letter this week to delay the cuts for at least six months, to “study alternative solutions to your current staff shortages without adversely affecting people living with disabilities, our employers, and our families and circles of support.”

Advocates have argued that many of the alternative transit options for people with disabilities are not accessible to those in wheelchairs or with mobility issues — leaving those without the service out of luck.

Metro responded this week that the service changes will go forward on the April 10 date, as a “necessary and important step toward restoring reliable paratransit service.” 

Advocacy groups have said several Call-A-Ride users may file complaints with the Federal Transit Administration.

“We will continue to look for a win-win solution,” Wehmeier said this week, “that does not harm some in order to make paratransit work better for others.”

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