Access-a-Ride service in Denver gets new provider
RTD addresses too many riders, not enough drivers.
Drivers for the Regional Transportation District’s Access-a-Ride service will have a new employer when they wake up on Oct. 1 — a change that RTD hopes will help solve the problem of growing demand in the face of labor shortages.
All Aboard Transit Services, a locally managed paratransit operation, lost its share of a $175 million contract with RTD’s Access-a-Ride program last fall. RTD put it up to bid as a result of growing concerns that the service was not meeting the needs of passengers.
The Access-a-Ride service — RTD’s way of adhering to federal law that requires any fixed-route transit system to provide an alternative paratransit system for people with disabilities — was struggling with capacity: too many riders and not enough drivers.
RTD’s dilemma is driven by low recruitment and retention, said Carolyn Conover, senior manager of contracted services for RTD. Colorado’s record-low unemployment rate and the unpopularity of drug testing are reducing driver numbers as an aging population demands more accessibility. As a result, rides were often late or had
to take long routes to cover more ground.
“People need it,” Conover said. “You’ve got the baby boomers — some of those people are getting older and not able to drive. We’re seeing more people becoming aware of (the service) as an option.”
Access-a-Ride makes about 2,700 one-way trips per day, according to Conover, and the service has 369 vehicles: 329 dedicated RTD vehicles and 40 provider vehicles. It serves the same areas covered by RTD buses in the metro area.
The legalization of marijuana presented new challenges for the federally funded transit authority. Applicants were turned off when they found out that drug testing was a prerequisite for the job. The proportion of applicants deterred by the requirement wasn’t high, Conover said, but it was a factor in recruitment and retention.
“I think a lot of people will shy away from applying,” Conover said. “Some apply and find out the hard way when they’re pulled for a drug test.”
But more than that, RTD representatives said Colorado’s low unemployment rate was the driver in the decision to put the contract up to bid a few years earlier than expected. The contract had previously trapped service providers in a certain wage range, leaving them unable to compete.
“I think in our current economy with a low unemployment rate, it is a struggle to find employees,” Conover said. “(The providers) are increasing their hiring wage to a more attractive rate.”
In the spring, Access-aRide providers began to increase wages to start at $15 an hour, Conover said. Previously, the average was $12.50. More experienced employees saw their wages increased proportionally past $15 an hour.
RTD officials said the change is already resulting in better service — with one or two vehicles not in use on an average day compared with 20 last fall. Because each vehicle can take about 10 people, Conover estimated that up to 200 passengers were impacted