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Follow that STAR: Calling Arlingtonians to Action!!

By Marcie B. Goldstein and Marion “Maya” Flores

Arlington County paratransit, better known as STAR, needs to be more respectful of people’s time!

For those who are not yet familiar with it, Arlington STAR is a locally operated, complementary ADA paratransit service designed to be an alternative to MetroAccess. MetroAccess is the name of the regional ADA paratransit service operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 established once and for all the responsibility of state and local governments to ensure that publicly operated services be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities, including public transit services. 

Recognizing that very few, if any, public transit services (public bus and subway systems) were accessible at that time, Congress required public transit providers to also offer complementary ADA paratransit services that would be available to anyone who could not use fixed route public transit due to their disability.

Thus, in 1994, and to meet the requirements of the ADA, WMATA created MetroAccess with the intention that it would serve any person with a disability who was prevented from using Metro bus or rail service due to the functional limitation(s) of their disability, the inaccessibility of transit services and facilities, and a variety of other factors spelled out in the ADA regulations.

Another hallmark of ADA paratransit was that the service would operate during the same days and hours of operation as the public transit service operated by local governments or regional transit authorities. Trips on ADA paratransit could not be restricted or denied due to one’s trip purpose, time of day, or location so long as it was within the service area of the local public transit service.

Additionally, the ADA and its regulations included a list of performance standards that ADA paratransit services must meet in order to ensure that it was COMPARABLE to service provided by regular, fixed route service. These performance standards included no trip denials, on-time pick up and arrival, reasonable vehicle wait times, and a prohibition on excessive time on a vehicle, especially where time on the paratransit vehicle exceeded the comparable time on a public transit bus for a comparable trip.

During its first ten years or so in operation MetroAccess experienced many start up problems, including underfunding. It was expected to serve any person with a disabilities needing ADA paratransit in the District and its Maryland and Virginia Suburbs. And, by 1998-99, it was failing in its mission. As a consequence of the many complaints by consumers and advocates, Arlington County decided to create STAR as an alternative to MetroAccess.

The rationale was that STAR, as a locally operated paratransit, could provide better service to Arlington residents with disabilities and seniors, save Arlington taxpayers money, and at the same time offer certain amenities not available to patrons of MetroAccess. And, so it was for the first ten years or thereabouts.

Things were never perfect. However, in 2007-8, new county staff attempted to raise fares and establish new policies that sought to cut services and eliminate some of the policies that consumers had fought for over the years. The advocacy of Arlingtonians with disabilities was instrumental in helping to ensure STAR continued to be responsive to patrons needs.

However, since the late 2010s, and especially since about 2017-18 when Red Top Cab and Diamond Transportation changed ownership and began changing the way they operated, STAR service has significantly degraded. Changes in county staff with oversight of the program has contributed to the problems and consumers’ voices, including those on the Accessibility Subcommittee of the Transit Advisory Committee have been diluted or ignored. 

This situation cannot continue. We are writing this article to call the attention of the ECNV community to what we feel is a worsening situation. 

A year ago, County staff presented a proposal to the Accessibility Subcommittee and STAR patrons for changes in STAR policies and operating procedures.

The staff proposals would have weakened STAR patrons rights to expect on-time service while giving providers more leeway by imposing longer wait windows on patrons. STAR patrons are experiencing excessive waits or even vehicle no-shows while County staff proposed to cut vehicle wait times from 10 minutes to 5 minutes while at the same time penalizing STAR patrons by suspending their services for late cancellations of trips or patron no-shows. STAR management didn’t even include a patron appeals process as part of its proposal on no-shows andlate cancellations!

Last Spring a group of STAR patrons got together to form an advocacy group called Save Our STAR (SOS). That group successfully fought to defeat the proposed service and policy changes. After SOS members met with County Board Members the staff proposals were withdrawn.

So here we are at the beginning of 2023, and things don’t seem to be much better! 

Recently, we (Marcie and Maya) rode together on STAR. We have noted that STAR has a requirement that they only must wait for a passenger for 10 minutes. But, on the flip side they can keep an individual waiting for a half hour or more at times or not show up at all.

When the individual calls to ask where their ride is, STAR operators will say we are looking for a van, the driver is behind schedule and he will be there shortly, or they’ll say we don’t know why he is late.

Is the issue one where STAR’s contractor’s Diamond Transportation and Red Top lack a sufficient number of drivers or wheelchair accessible vans? 

Arlington County staff has administrative and oversight responsibilities for the STAR Program. STAR contractors, Red Top Cab and Diamond Transportation, are supposed to provide reliable, on-time service. But, they aren’t!

The County contracts with Diamond and Redtop to provide the vehicles. By doing this, Arlington County and STAR staff can put fault on the providers and save money by not having to buy any vehicles or pay any drivers.

There is no incentive to improve service since there are no financial penalties on the providers. Unlike MetroAccess, there is no financial penalty when the scheduled ride is late or fails to show. MetroAccess provides its clients credits when MetroAccess is at fault. 

Many times, people will miss doctor’s appointments, be late to work, or miss social engagements because Red Top or Diamond Transportation are late or don’t show at all. This is not good when the rider is starting out from his or her home causing inconvenience and disappointment of not getting where they must go. When this happens on a return trip this is unsafe because the rider is left somewhere where everyone has left the site and the rider is standing alone at night waiting to be picked up for many hours.

STAR contractors, Diamond Transportation and Red Top, need to work to improve their system, probably by hiring more drivers and purchasing more vans that are newer and better. On time performance and reliability studies maybe required as well.

Another example of how not requiring STAR contractors to have enough vehicles and drivers to ensure demand for trips is satisfied is the issue of the interval between when a STAR patron is dropped off at one location and has to wait to book a trip to the next destination. Current policy requires STAR patrons to wait an hour or more once they are dropped off at their first destination before they can schedule a vehicle for a return trip or to go on to the next destination. 

Originally, the wait time between trips was only a half an hour. They doubled that to an hour saying that drivers needed more time to get from one pickup to another due to traffic. Is it traffic or is it poor planning and scheduling on the part of STAR providers? Or, could it be that the contractors need more vehicles and drivers to ensure on-time performance?

On the other hand, STAR policies can require that a patron’s trip could take up to 90 minutes since the service is considered to be shared ride. When one takes into consideration that when taking multiple trips in a sequence, the patron must allow up to 2 ½ hours between trips. It might be convenient for the contractors, but what about the patron who has to travel from business appointment to another or go from home to drop off a child and get to a doctor’s appointment and then to get groceries. These are the types of trips we take every day as people living independently in the community and fully participating in society.

Sadly, riders that follow STAR policy are still missing doctor’s appointments, and are then charged unnecessary fees for being late; losing their jobs for continually being tardy; and missing concerts and plays for which they have already purchased tickets and must absorb the cost.

Even worse, riders have been abandoned in the evening hours, leaving the disabled Arlington citizen to fend for themselves or to call 911.

In contrast, MetroAccess, which used to be the bad guy in town, has dramatically improved their service by providing transparency on their website and subcontracting with transportation services such as Uber, Lyft and other transportation services if there is going to be a significant delay. 

However, improvements in MetroAccess service only came after strong advocacy by patrons and other disability rights advocates from throughout the region. We strongly believe that Arlington STAR won’t reform without STAR patrons, other disability rights advocates, and our allies getting involved.

To save STAR and make it the model system it used to be, we need Arlingtonians with disabilities to learn more about STAR and its policies and operating procedures. A first step is to start attending/participating in meetings of the Accessibility Subcommittee of the Arlington County Transit Committee which reports to the County Manager. 

Their next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening March 14, 2023 from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. Speak in public comment. You’ll also have the opportunity to ask County staff about how STAR Policy works and request needed changes.

You can also:

  • Register your complaints about STAR services each and every time you have a problem,
  • Get involved with the Save Our STAR coalition by signing up for their listserv; and
  • Contact ECNV advocate Marcie Goldstein via email at marcie.b.goldstein@gmail.com to get more information about STAR and upcoming public hearings and opportunities for civic engagement.

(Note: The authors of the article include Marcie B. Goldstein, a former ECNV Board President, and Marion “Maya” Flores, former ECNV Board Member, who is a STAR patron.)