By David Schultz
You know those red, white and blue, wheelchair-accessible vans that drive around town? The ones with Metro logos on their hoods?
Well, Metro doesn't actually operate them. A company named MV Transportation does.
Five years ago, Metro awarded MV an eight-year contract worth $540 million, its largest contract ever. But apparently, it wasn't large enough.
Metro and MV have modified the contract upwards several times since then, to the tune of $190 million. The reason: explosive growth in ridership.
"20 percent growth every year for four years in a row is probably not something that most bidders would anticipate," says Christian Kent, the man in charge of para-transit at Metro. "It's not so much that people are using the service more. It's that more people are using the service."
This boom in ridership is being spurred by another boom - the baby boom.
The boomer generation is growing older and living longer. And, consequently, more people are qualifying for disability services.
Jon Monson, the chairman of MV's board, says no one foresaw this.
"It's no different than if you were building a building," says Monson. "And you signed a contract for a 3-bedroom house. And then in the middle of construction you say 'Well, you know, I would like a 4-bedroom house.'"
Wendy Klancher has a different explanation.She's a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments who's overseen several independent audits of Metro Access.
She says the staff turnover rate at MV is extremely high.
"And that hurts the quality of the service and the cost. Ultimately that high staff turnover does impact the cost of the service," says Klancher.
Klancher's audit found that, in 2008, the annual turnover rate among MV's drivers was 111 percent.
Klancher says that means if, hypothetically, you begin the year with 100 drivers, "within a year, you've lost all 100 drivers and 11 more, that you've hired within that year and left," she says.
"I would love to find another job; if I was able to find another job tomorrow, I would definitely leave here," says one auto mechanic at the Metro Access garage in Capitol Heights, Maryland. The mechanic wouldn't give his name because he feared retaliation, but he was more than happy to talk.
"We make the vehicles run 24 hours. We doing a lot. I mean, we put in engines, transmissions. We doing a whole helluva lot back there. And I think everybody back there is underpaid. Especially drivers, they're really underpaid. I think really, the drivers deserve more money," he says.
Metro Access drivers make around $12 an hour, wages that, Monson says, are comparable within the para-transit industry.
But he says, in this industry, turnover is driven by factors other than wages.
"People that are qualified for the jobs come in and apply, and find out, either they find out or we find out, that they're not suited to this very specialized type of service," says Monson.
And it's true, driving a Metro Access van is not easy, not only do you fight D.C. traffic all day, but you do it with passengers who require extra care and sensitivity.
Still, the audit that Klancher oversaw, found MV's driver turnover rate was more than four times the industry average.
Klancher says Metro should rethink its Metro Access contract.
Instead of giving everything to one company, like MV,she believes Metro should work with many different companies to introduce more competition.
"It's the free market principle, where you've got some leverage to say, 'Well hey, Company X is doing it for this much money and they're meeting their on-time performance,'" she comments.
MV's contract is up for renewal next year, and Kent says Metro might take Klancher's suggestion.
"We are taking a look at a different model. We are considering multiple contracts," says Kent.
And this could go a long way toward reining in costs. But it won't be a cure-all.
With demand for para-transit growing exponentially, Metro still needs to come up with a long-term strategy.
Until it does that, expect more record-setting contracts in the near future.