Seniors and elder advocates blasted the MTA’s Access-A-Ride program at a meeting of the Queens Interagency Council on Aging on Feb. 8, at Queens Borough Hall. They cited late pickups, rude phone operators and poorly marked vehicles among other problems.
A spokeswoman for the agency said it works diligently to address such concerns.
Miriam Burns, a QICA board member who moderated the discussion, recounted Tuesday the story of a woman who, on Christmas Day, had to wait two hours for an AAR vehicle to pick her up, leaving her just 15 minutes to spend with her son on the holiday.
But that was far from the only complaint voiced at the forum, which is held monthly by the organization to find out problems and issues facing older adults.
“When they call, almost everyone treats them disrespectfully,” Burns said. “They act like they are doing them a favor.”
Burns said if an AAR vehicle is late or doesn’t arrive at all, it leaves clients in a difficult predicament. Many older adults don’t have cell phones, making it hard to call the agency when not at home. If they are left stranded, most of them don’t have enough cash to take a cab, Burns said.
When calling the MTA there is a long menu process before getting to speak to the appropriate person and when the individual is reached, it can sometimes take in excess of 20 minutes to resolve the issue.
“They are dealing with the most frail, defenseless people and that’s what’s so disturbing,” Burns said. “Without access to transportation, they can literally become prisoners in their own homes because they can’t get anywhere.”
Burns also recalled the story of another older adult, who after getting tired of waiting outside for over an hour to be picked up by AAR, called the MTA to complain and the operator allegedly told her to request that the management at her apartment building put a bench outside for her to sit on.
“It’s been a nightmare experience for a lot of people,” Burns said of the AAR program.
In addition to being a QICA board member for the last five years, Burns served as a senior policy analyst to former City Councilman Peter Vallone Sr. working on the aging, women’s and general welfare committees.
“I can’t remember a time when people didn’t complain about Access-A-Ride,” Burns said. “It’s not a good system and never has been.”
Deirdre Parker, a spokeswoman for the MTA, said in an email Tuesday that the city’s division of paratransit, which overseas AAR “responds in an appropriate and timely manner to the concerns, commendations and comments submitted about Access-A-Ride service.”
She added that if clients believe a phone operator has treated them inappropriately, they should report the person to the agency noting the time when the call was placed and the administration will re-train the individual.
Also, Parker said steps the MTA takes to ensure customer satisfaction include reviewing the trip history and other records after a complaint is made; identifying larger systemic issues by keeping track of areas that have received multiple complaints; and working with AAR carriers and staff to improve service performance.
One area lawmaker is also seeking to make improvements to the AAR program. Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Little Neck), who attended the QICA meeting, introduced a bill in January that would require the MTA to take AAR identification photos on site, rather than making clients bring a passport-sized photo with them. It is presently before the Transportation Committee.
“I am very concerned,” Weprin said Wednesday of AAR. “There have been a lot of complaints. ... It’s very disturbing.”
An MTA staffer visited the Ridgewood Older Adult Center on Feb. 15 to speak about AAR program. Approximately 10 percent of the senior center’s 170 regular clients already use the service according to its executive director, Jacqueline Eradiri. And many have had problems.
“The representative started the presentation by saying, ‘I am not a punching bag,’ because she knows there are complaints,” Eradiri said.
Both she and Burns agree that part of the problem is that AAR does not manage its resources efficiently. The vans are never full and the routes are plotted in what Burns referred to as a “willy-nilly” fashion.
Bobbie Sackman, the director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, said that an independent task force should be formed to monitor AAR operations. “There have been problems over the years, and they have been pretty consistent,” she said.
In some cases cars are sent to pick up clients instead of the traditional AAR vans and there have been numerous complaints that they are not clearly marked, according to the senior advocates interviewed for this article, causing individuals to either not recognize them and miss their ride or making them afraid to get into the vehicle.
Linda Nadel, office manager at Services Now for Adult Persons, located on the campus of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, said the issue has certainly been a problem among their clients, especially those with developmental disabilities. But that’s not the worst of it, according to Nadel.
“We give them very specific directions, but they always go to the wrong building or don’t show up, but [the drivers] swear up and down to their supervisors that they were here when it’s not true,” she said.
Oftentimes SNAP has to provide cab service at its own expense for those left stranded by AAR and although they ask their clients to reimburse the organization, Nadel said, they almost never do.