MARTA reaching tipping point over bus service for disabled riders

By David Pendered

MARTA’s bus service for disabled riders is in the legal crosshairs. MARTA is to appear in federal court in Atlanta to defend its paratransit service just weeks after being told to scrub its privatized paratransit program and operate buses with MARTA employees.

marta bus

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public transit agencies to ensure, ‘equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities.’ MARTA’s paratransit system faces two legal hurdles. Credit: Kelly Jordan

U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. has ordered MARTA to appear in court March 21. The issue is MARTA’s compliance with the court’s requirements issued in a ruling in 2002. That ruling determined MARTA did not comply with terms of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA of 1990, “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity and access for persons with disabilities,” according to a statement by the Federal Transit Administration. Public transit services seek to comply by providing individual service for disabled riders who meet specific criteria.

MARTA declined to comment on the federal lawsuit, saying the agency does not publicly discuss pending litigation.

Even as this matter proceeds, MARTA officials face a May 14 deadline regarding the system’s current paratransit program. The deadline stems from a loss MARTA suffered in a stand-off with the transit union.

This situation involves a Feb. 3 ruling by an arbitration panel. The issue wasn’t the quality of paratransit service. Rather, the union filed a grievance contending MARTA doesn’t have the right to privatize the jobs that provide paratransit service.

The arbitration panel sided with the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 732. MARTA was ordered to bring the paratransit operation in-house within 100 calendar days of the ruling. MARTA also was ordered to compensate its paratransit employees for any wages or benefits they lost due to the privatization. Some 300 jobs were affected.

keith parker

MARTA CEO Keith Parker testified that the privatization of paratransit contributed to the passage last year of the transportation sales tax.

Erik Burton, MARTA’s senior director of media relations, said in a statement issued Feb. 24 that MARTA’s leadership has not determined whether it will appear the panel’s ruling:

  • MARTA’s Mobility service remains a critical resource in providing transportation services for those individuals who cannot always utilize regular MARTA service.
  • “We have not made a final determination on our future course of action in response to the recent arbitration ruling, however MARTA will continue providing the highest level of service to all of our valued customers who are unable to ride or disembark on our regular MARTA services.”

In outsourcing the paratransit service, MARTA’s board of directors was following a recommendation contained in a 2012 management audit. The audit was conducted by KPMG at the behest of MARTA’s board of directors and then-CEO Beverly Scott.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker testified in the arbitration hearing that the privatization of paratransit helped restore public confidence in MARTA. That confidence factored into the voter approval last year of a transportation sales tax that will benefit MARTA:

  • “If we didn’t show that the agency was serious about getting better, … I don’t think these other opportunities [the bond measure] that are now in front of us would exist.”
MARTA paratransit interior

MARTA’s paratransit vans are intended to provide space for the disabled/handicapped client and up to four companions: A personal care attendant; a companion; two children who ride for free if under 46 inches in height. File/Credit:

MARTA’s defense strategy in its federal contempt hearing may have been compromised by the ruling from the arbitration panel.

MARTA now seems unlikely to contend the privatized program is a step toward compliance with the terms of the 2002 ruling.

Regardless, this time the quality of MARTA’s paratransit service is the central issue.

The contempt motion filed in May 2015 on the riders’ behalf states:

  • “In fact, MARTA Paratransit’s performance has sharply declined since the injunction was entered. In fact, over the last 8 quarters MARTA’s paratransit performance has deteriorated to a point that it cannot be characterized by any adjective other than ‘abysmal.’ …
  • “These numbers reveal that, at present, MARTA Paratransit riders experience a significant delay (or receive no transport at all) on one out of every five trips they make. Thus, thousands of persons who depend on MARTA Paratransit for their transportation are unable to consistently make it to work on time, to medical appointments on time, or to meet their friends and families at planned times.”

Thrash called for the hearing in an order issued Dec. 20, 2016.

The subject is a motion for cotempt filed by five disabled riders riders on behalf of themselves and other disabled riders. These are the same riders who filed the lawsuit that resulted in the ruling against MARTA in 2002.


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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