Tuesday, February 27, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

Capital Metro board hits pause on MetroAccess contract proposal

The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors on Monday sent back to its committees a staff proposal to readjust a paratransit provider’s contract to the tune of $25.7 million.

Chad Ballentine, the agency’s vice president of demand response and innovative mobility, presented to the board the proposal that would extend Capital Metro’s agreement with Ride Right to operate MetroAccess service for at least another five years, with the option of two additional years.

Ride Right’s original contract, inked in 2014, included a five-year base term with a five-year option. That 10-year package accounted for 982,500 service hours and was worth $53 million.

The proposed extension would be worth $78.7 million and increase the number of service hours provided to 1.7 million.

Much as it does with its fixed-route bus and train services, Capital Metro contracts MetroAccess operations out to third-party firms. Ride Right is based out of MetroAccess’ north base near Highland Mall, while MV Transportation is headquartered in the south. A third firm, LeFleur Transportation, was handling overflow service until the company unexpectedly ended its operations in Austin and across the state last fall.

That sudden departure prompted the proposal to expand Ride Right’s role.

Board members met the idea with no shortage of caution.

“My biggest concern is we’re essentially extending this without a solicitation process,” City Council Member Ann Kitchen told Ballentine.

He countered that LeFleur’s sudden collapse forced the agency’s hand and that the 10-year term of Ride Right’s original contract would not change. Once that agreement expires in 2024, Ballentine explained, Capital Metro will solicit new partners to operate MetroAccess out of the north base. In the meantime, the agency will bring a new contract for MV’s south-based services to the board next month.

The board members questioned the long-term viability of existing MetroAccess operations given innovations that are potentially right around the corner, such as robot cars. Chair Wade Cooper asked whether the proposed contract with Ride Right would tie the agency’s hands, a concern echoed by Council Member Delia Garza.

“There will always be a need for these dedicated service providers,” Ballentine told Garza. Referring to MetroAccess customers, he continued, “These are the folks that you really can’t put in a (transportation network company car) or a taxi. These are folks with severe cognitive disabilities, or larger wheelchairs, those kinds of things.”

Still not mollified, Kitchen expressed her desire to tap the brakes on the proposed contract revision. She pointed to next month’s discussion of MV’s contract.

“It just seems to me that our contracts for the entire service give us the most flexibility if we vote on them or consider them at the same time,” said Kitchen.

Cooper announced he shared his colleagues’ concerns and suggested pushing the Ride Right proposal back to the Operations and Planning Committee at its March 9 meeting for further consideration.

As for the future of paratransit, Ballentine told the Austin Monitor he’s bracing for technological disruption.

“We don’t know what the future holds for us,” he said. “I think what we’re going to see is probably autonomous vehicles as something that will really change the game for us a lot more than adding TNCs or an app.”

Photo by WhisperToMe (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

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