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Paratransit riders with disabilities concerned about reliability following move to van-only service

White van with door open in a parking lot. Logo "Transdev" with red lettering on side door and hood.
Wikipedia Commons
Wikipedia Commons
Vans like these are now the only transit option provided by Milwaukee County for people with disabilities, outside of MCTS buses. Advocates say the van service is unreliable.

Milwaukee County has ended its on-demand paratransit taxi transit option for people with disabilities, leaving many feeling like they’ve lost the ability for reliable transportation and a spontaneous life.

Milwaukee County still offers transportation for people with disabilities, but rides must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance and advocates say the service has proved to be too unreliable for regular use.

The on-demand taxi program was previously operated by American United Transportation Group until the program ended on Sept. 28, 2023. County officials say the program ended due to changes in federal regulations from the Federal Transit Administration that mandated that the taxi program would need to be wheelchair accessible and institute random drug tests for drivers.

According to county estimates in June, instituting these changes to the program would have likely tripled the program’s budget, while also increasing fares for riders and limiting rides to two per month per user.

Donna Brown-Martin, Milwaukee County director of transportation, says that continuing to operate the paratransit taxi program without instituting these changes would have jeopardized funding for the entire transit system, including MCTS buses.

“Despite the fact that [the paratransit taxi program] was covered by tax levy, it was still a service connected to the paratransit system, and Federal Transit Administration rules governed our ability to move forward with that,” she says.

However, the van service alternative has a few distinctions from the on-demand taxi service that ended in September. Its vehicles are wheelchair accessible, but riders are required to schedule rides at least 24 hours in advance.

The vans are also seen as unreliable by transit advocates, with many sharing stories that the vans cannot be expected to show up on time, or sometimes even at all.

Kevin Meyers, a frequent user of the taxi service, says that it was a reliable alternative to the vans. He stopped using the vans several years ago after he was repeatedly picked up late while traveling home across town.

“There were numerous times when my pickup time was 8:15, and I didn’t get picked up until 10 o’clock at night,” Meyers remembers. “People there were supposed to close the school at 9 o’clock … so now the school is paying someone more to stay there because I’m late, because the van wasn’t picking me up.”

To add fuel to this skepticism, just as Milwaukee County was closing out the taxi service, the van service began to fail. Previously in November 2022, Milwaukee County signed a seven-year contract with First Transit to be the sole provider of van rides for people with disabilities. Before the contract even kicked in — it begins on Oct. 29, First Transit was bought out by Transdev, a French multinational transit provider.

In August, Transdev began taking over rides previously administered by First Transit, about a month before the taxi service was scheduled to end. Transdev was not ready for the task, missing nearly half its scheduled pick-ups.

“We bit off a little more than we could swallow at the time, and it came back and bit us,” said Mark Ward, Transdev’s regional director of operations, in a Sept. 5 Milwaukee County Committee on Transportation and Transit meeting.

Brown-Martin says that the van’s issues are rooted in staffing. She says more drivers have been hired since August, which will boost van service reliability, and that people like Meyers will be able to rely on it for getting around.

“Long-term, fully expect that to be the case, as soon as we get all of our drivers onboard,” she says. “I believe the service will get better.”

However, Meyers remains skeptical of the van service for now, and is committed to bringing back an on-demand transit option for people with disabilities.

“On-demand transportation service needs to exist here in Milwaukee County,” he says.


Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
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