Serious questions are being raised about whether a government program designed to give the disabled greater opportunities and access has turned into a private chauffeur service, with regular bus and subway riders picking up the half-billion-dollar tab even though the practice is perfectly legal and no one is breaking any rules.
You've probably seen Access-A-Ride vans on the streets, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They take disabled people wherever they want to go for the same $2.50 price as a subway or bus fare. And that even includes unlimited trips to the casino.
As long as the passenger has an Access-A-Ride card from the MTA, the driver is not allowed to question their disability or their destination, which is given to them on a trip manifest.
The MTA provides Access-A-Ride to comply with federal regulations, according to Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She said it is mandated by federal law so that the disabled can get equivalent transportation service.
The Access-A-Ride vans are allowed to go anywhere in the city. That includes the ResortsWorld Casino in Ozone Park. On three separate occasions we spotted six different vans dropping off or picking up people.
The MTA said the average Access-A-Ride trip costs $51, and there is no limit to how often someone can use it, or for what purpose.
"It's not within the government's job to say if this is a good thing or a bad thing -- you can go anywhere the subway or bus goes," Gelinas said.
The MTA said it is trying to provide transit services to the disabled while reining in costs. The agency said the 2013 budget is $491,930. In 2014, the MTA expects that to rise to $515,180. That is about half a billion dollars to service the 163,759 people in the program, or about $3,003 a year per person. The MTA has made buses easier for disabled riders to use, and some subway stations have elevators.
Gelinas said that is the way to go.
"The more you make the regular mass transit able to accommodate everyone, the less you need these vans," she said.
The MTA is also trying to encourage the disabled to use more taxis and livery car services when possible by issuing vouchers. The agency is also rolling out a plan over the next 18 months to give Access-A-Ride participants free MetroCards to take mass transit.