I-Team: MetroLift riders complain of long waits


by Jeff McShan / 11 News


Posted on November 18, 2010 at 11:10 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 19 at 11:41 AM

HOUSTON – Some MetroLift riders complain that the service is rarely on time and has caused them to miss important appointments.

MetroLift is a branch of Metro that services Houston’s disabled.

Melanie Almaguer was just 15 years old when she lost the use of her arms and legs.

She was shot between the eyes during a robbery, but somehow, she survived.

That was more than a decade ago, and now, Melanie has become somewhat independent. She has home-health nurses to get her out of bed, bathe her and get her into her motorized wheelchair.

But Almaguer says getting around the city is a different story.

Both Almaguer and her boyfriend rely on MetroLift to take them anywhere they need to go, but she said she’s waited as long as three hours for a ride.

She documented some of her experiences with a home video camera.

On one occasion, Almaguer said she had to wait so long after a trip to the grocery store that her food spoiled.

Other MetroLift riders have had similar experiences.

"This program is hell," said rider Marie Boone.

Boone said she believes 85 percent of MetroLift customers are not happy, but they don’t complain.

"They’re too scared to say anything about it, because when it comes time for us to get renewed they’re scared that they are going to deny us. So no one wants to come forward," Boone said.

Boone said MetroLift is rarely on time and has caused her to miss doctor’s appointments.

"A doctor’s appointment is not important to them," Boone said.

And then there’s Nuang Luu, who is legally blind. She and two other disabled family members said they’re upset, too.

"All the time; you know they get mad, they shout at Metro. Yeah they get mad and say ‘When you are going to pick me up,’" Luu said.

After Luu, Boone and Almaguer asked the 11 News I-Team to investigate MetroLift, we learned that MetroLift services more than 16,000 disabled customers and makes 5,000 trips daily.

Art Jackson, who heads up MetroLift, said the problems that occur basically come down to this: Scheduled trips don’t always go as scheduled. There are many variables, he said.

"We are never going to be a perfect service because there are so many factors that come into play. Traffic, weather, customers needing assistance, trying to find an apartment inside an apartment complex," Jackson said.

But Jackson said MetroLift is not running from client concerns. Twice a month, he said, they get out to different communities seeking feedback.

And that feedback is why Jackson said there’s been an increase in MetroLift complaints -- 1,434, so far this year, compared to 859 last year at this time.

"And, yes, complaints have gone up about 12 percent (from) what they were last year, but what we also found was that the positive things, the commendations, the things that we are doing well, went up over 60 percent," Jackson said.

Many of the complaints MetroLift receives are from clients who say they’re sitting on the bus for one, or even two hours, before they arrive at their final destination.

"It hurts. I’ve got a bullet in my back. I have issues," Almaguer said.

MetroLift said they’re often late because they are trying to accommodate everyone—even customers who have last-minute changes.

"At a time where eight transit agencies across the nation are shrinking their service, doing only the bare minimum, doing only what they are required to do, we are going into areas that we are not required to go in to. We are only required to go into areas where there are fixed bus services," Jackson said.

And just like the regular bus service, Jackson said he wants his clients to know that a driver often has to pick up multiple clients.

"The service is intended to mirror the fixed-route bus system and we are going to have to stop and pick up other customers and provide them with service also," Jackson said.

So planning and patience are key, he said.

"But, as you pointed out, if our customers will be patient with us, day in and day out, we will deliver a quality service; and when we make mistakes, and we don’t do things well we will work with them and try to improve the service," Jackson said.

Jackson himself is disabled. He broke his back during a high school football workout.

He said he takes the complaints seriously and has talked with many customers, like Almaguer and Boone.

Jackson said he wants them all to keep calling if they encounter problems.

Tips for traveling on MetroLift:

• Make sure you allow enough time to get to your destination. For example, if you have a 9:00 appointment, schedule your ride to be there at 8:30. It is better to be early rather than late.

• Plan ahead. Avoid making changes to your trips on the day of service because this may delay your transportation and also impact other riders.

• Be sure to confirm your scheduled pickup times and be ready on the day of service.

• Cancel your trips if you will not be riding. Trips that aren’t canceled cause drivers to run late and waste time and resources.  

• Give MetroLift input and feedback regarding the service. Call the MetroLift Customer Service Center at 713-225-0119.