Freedom RIDErs

By SEAN FLYNN  |  August 14, 2008

The RIDE, however, may have changed that — at least in Boston. On July 1, a new company took over the 11-year-old program — a door-to-door van service for those unable to gain access to the T’s regular buses and trains — and service deteriorated dramatically. In the first week, 20 percent of those who called for rides were refused service outright (according to MBTA records), and hundreds more complained of vans that showed up too late to be useful, if at all. Transportation Management Services Incorporated (TMSI), the Virginia-based company that took over July 1, was accused of putting untrained and unsafe drivers on the road. TMSI has denied that charge, but by the end of July RIDE vans had been involved in 23 traffic accidents, and six people, according to advocates, had had to be hospitalized because of injuries they received on the vans (MBTA spokesman Vincent Carbona has said he knows of only three hospitalizations). Some clients say they were frightened out of using the service.

Even as officials at both the MBTA and TMSI admitted the service was abysmal and pledged to improve it, the disabled community was facing a major crisis. Although the service had never been perfect before, the RIDE was sliding backward to a point that threatened the health, safety, and livelihood of thousands of people who rely on it as their only link to the outside world. “The fact of the matter is that this never should have happened,” says Jim Gleich of the Massachusetts Office of Handicapped Affairs (OHA). “And it wouldn’t have happened in any other part of the [MBTA] system.”

Faced with that breakdown, the community mobilized an unprecedented offensive aimed at the RIDE and the T. “I think the fact that people were literally left stranded, that they couldn’t get to their jobs, they couldn’t get to medical appointments, I think that’s what really did it,” says Brooks, a paralegal with the Disability Law Center. “I think that hit them in a real hard way.” On July 27, almost 100 people, many of them in wheelchairs, showed up at Boston City Hall for an anti-RIDE rally, calling for TMSI to be fired. Little more than a week later, a group of demonstrators presented a list of 19 demands to T officials, including one that again called for the rookie company to be booted. And on Monday, August 8, came the crowning event: the march to the Transportation Building, including the threat of civil disobedience (demonstrators were willing to be arrested, but none were) that forced a meeting with MBTA GM O’Leary. And that time, activists — including some who were joining in a vocal protest for the first time — were armed with crews from three TV stations and five newspapers.

How much of a victory the demonstrators actually won on August 8, in terms of hard concessions from O’Leary, isn’t certain. O’Leary again refused to relieve TMSI of its duties, claiming that service had improved dramatically since July 1 (a claim RIDE users are more than a little skeptical of) and asserting that firing TMSI would put the RIDE back into another transition phase — one that could be as messy as July was. However, he did promise to establish a three-member watchdog board to keep tabs on the RIDE, and agreed to reimburse RIDE users for any out-of-pocket expenses caused by snafus.

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