The transit service for disabled Denver-area residents who can't use regular Regional Transportation District buses is a mixed bag of steady reliability and gaping flaws that leaves some of its most vulnerable clients waiting for rides.
Or so say those who regularly use RTD's $35 million Access-a-Ride curb-to-curb shuttle service. For a $4.50 fare, an Access-a-Ride certified user can take a specially equipped vehicle for any trip in the RTD system after calling at least one day in advance.
Access-a-Ride, which is required under federal rules, has improved greatly over the past few years considering the size of the district, said Claudia Folska, an RTD board member who is blind.
"It's so hard to find good, consistent providers," Folska said, "but I think RTD has done an excellent job, considering all the moving parts involved."
But in at least one metro household, Access-a-Ride is known as "Access-a-Hell" because of erratic performance.
"It's maddeningly inconsistent," said Bill Briggs, whose 23-year-old daughter uses Access-a-Ride to get to her physical therapy at Craig Hospital. "The AARide managers are clearly overwhelmed, overbooked and can't seem to pull the threads together to make the system work."
Last year, Access-a-Ride's 324 vehicles covered more than 9 million miles and made 685,000 passenger trips. RTD officials say contractors are fined for late drivers but that on-time performances have improved.
The workload for Access-a-Ride — and its companion service Access-a-Cab — has climbed nearly 60 percent in almost 10 years to 872,980 trips. That jump reflects a rise in an aging population and their accompanying health problems, said RTD officials.
"It's all those baby boomers knocking on our door," RTD assistant general manager Bruce Abel said. "One of the challenges we face is all those increasing referrals for our service."
In July, Abel told the RTD board of directors that a driver shortage among the four contractors that provide Access-a-Ride also plagues performance. At least nine out of 10 applicants for Access-a-Ride driver jobs fail their drug and alcohol screenings, he told the board.
"Drug and alcohol tests seem to be a particular challenge in Colorado," Access-a-Ride manager Larry Buter told the board.
That, and the fact that Access-a-Ride drivers make only $10 to $11 an hour, make it difficult to keep a steady crew.
"It's like any other industry; it ebbs and flows with the economy," Abel said. "A lot of drivers are semi-retired, or in between jobs, and if something better comes along, they leave."
Some drivers, however, are in for the long haul because they want to help their clients.
"They are here for the people who need the most help," Abel said. "It means a lot to them."
RTD would not allow The Denver Post to interview any of its drivers.
Most of those miles on Access-a-Ride were pretty smooth, said 50-year-old Theresa Montano, who has been blind for 27 years and uses both Access-a-Ride and Access-a-Cab for weekly appointments around the metro area.
"I'm pretty happy with both services," said Montano, saying Access-a-Ride drivers are well-trained and accommodate her service dog.
It's a big improvement over past years, when Access-a-Ride buses would consistently be late and offer little aid to riders, said the University Hills resident.
"I think they have really streamlined the system, and it's much better than say 10 years ago," Montano said.
Briggs, however, said chronic tardiness in reaching the standard 30-minute pickup window has made his daughter late to Craig Hospital several times. Each time she is late, Briggs said, it can cost up to $80 out of pocket for personal training.
Besides a financial loss for families, passengers like his daughter — who was critically injured in a car accident in 2011 and suffered a traumatic brain injury — will also lose valuable therapy time, Briggs said.
Also, since drivers will not call passengers when they arrive for a pickup, passengers must wait outside for as long as 45 minutes or face missing the pickup, Briggs said.
"This exposes them to weather or heat or cold," he said.
Access-a-Ride, he said, is "late way too often — and the information riders are given when they call to ask when the driver will actually arrive is wildly inaccurate."
Kelly Egan, who is blind, said she has learned to avoid Access-a-Ride if scheduling is key.
"I wouldn't use it for any place where you had to be on time," said the 55-year-old Egan.
However, she and her service dog Hope rely on Access-a-Cab a lot during the week. That service is offered an an alternative to Access-a-Ride and is becoming more popular, say RTD officials.
Under the program, a passenger pays the first $2 of the fare and any amount over a total one-way fare of $14.
Egan uses it for quick trips, including meeting with friends and co-workers. The only glitch is the occasional cab driver who objects to her dog being in the vehicle.
"That hasn't happened too often," she said. "Access-a-Cab works for me, and I'm grateful to have it."
When passengers schedule a trip, they are told their pickup will arrive within a 30-minute window, Buter said. The "passenger on-time performance" is based on the vehicle's arrival within that 30-minute window.
Based on demand, Access-a-Ride's scheduling software will often schedule a person to be picked up toward the end of the 30-minute window, Buter said. This signals a secondary standard — "carrier on time performance" — which is used to determine at which point the carrier would be penalized for being late.
Carrier-on-time performance tacks on 15 minutes beyond the 30-minute window for the driver to arrive at the pickup location before penalties kick in, Buter said.
During the second quarter of 2014, drivers met the passenger on-time performance goal more than 83 percent of the time. Carrier on-time performance was logged in at more than 94 percent, Buter said, all improvements over the previous quarter.
Changes in hiring and the scheduling of more vehicles for high-demand areas are making a difference, Buter said.
For instance, at least two of Access-a-Ride contractors have begun advertising on the radio, and all of the contractors have increased the number of job fares they conduct, he said.
"It's a long haul," Buter said, "but we are making changes all the time to serve people better."