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Feds end discrimination investigation into MBTA citing improvements in The Ride service for wheelchair users

A driver operated a lift on The Ride for a passenger in a wheelchair in this 2010 file photo.ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GL

Federal prosecutors in Massachusetts said this week they had ended their investigation into alleged discrimination by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority after the transit agency made improvements in access to its paratransit service The Ride for people who use wheelchairs.

The investigation, started in 2017 by the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts, which enforces compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, was prompted by complaints from wheelchair users about a pilot program started by the MBTA in 2016 that allows people who use The Ride to book with Uber and Lyft. The office found that people who use wheelchairs could not benefit from the pilot program like people who do not use wheelchairs because some of the cars used by Uber and Lyft were not wheelchair accessible.

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Citing a subsidy the MBTA now provides to Uber and Lyft to offset the cost of using wheelchair accessible vehicles and a commitment from the agency to improve and increase access for wheelchair users relying on the service, the US Attorney’s office said it has closed its investigation into the matter Tuesday.

As part of its agreement to close the investigation, the MBTA will report wait times for riders needing wheelchair-accessible vehicles to the US Attorney’s Office for a period of 18 months.

“The Department is confident that, through the reforms that the MBTA has initiated and with its commitment to servicing the paratransit community, [wheelchair-accessible vehicle] riders will experience improvements in their use of the Pilot Program,” said assistant US Attorney Gregory Dorchak in a letter dated earlier this year to the MBTA’s general counsel Marie Breen.

In a statement Wednesday, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the MBTA continues to “seek creative solutions” to improve The Ride.

“The MBTA’s groundbreaking work with transportation network companies increased the transportation options available to the paratransit community,” he said via e-mail. “In developing this program, the MBTA is proud to have increased access to wheelchair accessible vehicles for paratransit passengers using transportation network companies.”

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The Ride provides door-to-door car and van transportation service for people with disabilities. In February 2020, The Ride was providing 5,841 average weekday trips, according to the MBTA. The Ride has regained more than 55 percent of its pre-pandemic weekday ridership, according to a report from MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak to the agency’s board last month.

Wheelchair users raised concerns about the MBTA’s pilot program with Uber and Lyft when it began in 2016, citing the shortage of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

The Ride has long been plagued by service problems, including long wait times, and issues with contractors.

In December 2017, the MBTA ended its contract with a company brought on to handle scheduling and dispatching less than a year after it began providing the services. In September 2019, the MBTA’s oversight board approved contracts with three different van and car companies, but one of the companies dropped out of the contract later that year. Last year, the MBTA abruptly ended its contract with Routematch, an Uber-owned software provider, just a year after implementing it, after service worsened.


Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.