Auditor’s report on Metro Mobility highlights service, management issues

A newly released report by Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) highlights numerous concerns with the performance, standards and management of the Twin Cities transportation service for people with disabilities and health issues.

Some state lawmakers have voiced concerns with Metro Mobility’s services in recent years. Last spring, the legislative committee that chooses program evaluation topics for OLA directed the office to audit Metro Mobility, and in doing so, OLA looked at the program’s data from the past five fiscal years.

Metro Mobility and its services are managed and overseen by Metropolitan Council. In 2022, the program received $93 million in revenue — $56 million from the state, $31 million in federal funding and $7 million from passenger fares.

As required by state and federal laws, the program serves Minnesotans who aren’t able to use the public transit system due to a disability or health concern. OLA’s report states that, in the 2023 fiscal year, Metro Mobility helped more than 18,500 riders and provided more than 1.9 million rides, which is still around 300,000 riders short of pre-pandemic levels but a quicker post-pandemic rebound than other Metro Transit services have seen.

However, around 5,216 ride requests were denied during the year, the report states. While that’s only 0.27% of ride requests, it’s still an average of 14 ride denials per day in the last fiscal year.

Providers say they lacked sufficient capacity to provide those rides, pointing to workforce shortages and troubles getting vehicles after the pandemic as key factors.

A Met Council staff member told OLA that the driver shortage is a “big issue” that is “front and center,” and a provider staff member added that they were 100 drivers short at one point. While Metro Mobility’s fleet features more than 200 vehicles, the functional number is much lower, with many exceeding their operating lives and around 40 out of service at any time, a provider staff member told OLA.

For rides that were booked and completed, OLA found the program struggled with its performance.

Met Council has performance goals related to riders’ on-board time as well as pick-up and drop-off times, plus stipulations in provider contracts that require at least 93% of pick-ups and drop-offs to be on-time and at least 95% of rides to be below maximum on-board times in a calendar month. In the last fiscal year, Metro Mobility failed two of those goals, with 10% of pick-ups and 12% of drop-offs failing to meet “on-time” standards. Four percent of rides exceeded the maximum on-board time, meeting that goal.

The program met the latter goal in all 12 months last fiscal year but failed the pick-up goal in 9 of 12 months and didn’t meet the drop-off goal in any month, the report states. Riders have to be picked up within 30 minutes of their scheduled request and dropped off no more than an hour early and not late to be considered “on-time” pick-ups and drop-offs.

While the Met Council’s contracts with providers include financial penalties for failing to meet performance goals, OLA found that the agency increased driver wages and compensated providers for nonroutine vehicle maintenance as part of efforts to address workforce shortages, and relaxed some performance thresholds. Overall, that failed to address any issues with service quality, OLA says, as providers continued to struggle to meet performance goals.

Despite performance and service issues, the Met Council incorrectly gave $5,000 monthly bonuses to providers four times — 8% of the time — when they weren’t warranted, OLA found.

While the program typically meets state and federal requirements, auditors noted that Metro Mobility applies different standards to rider scheduling to do so, which can create major inconveniences for riders.

OLA found that the Met Council allows trip providers to not guarantee rider requests when they’re made. Instead, providers are allowed to “make every reasonable effort” to schedule rides by 3 p.m. the day before and notify riders that their request has either been scheduled or denied by 8 p.m. the day before.

Additionally, providers can deny requests in state-mandated service areas if it impedes the program’s ability to fulfill federally mandated rides. That means riders who make ride requests days in advance still may not know if they’ll have a ride or need to make alternate plans until the night before they need it. Also, OLA found that providers only have to try to schedule state-mandated rides within an hour of the rider’s requested pick-up time, and around 1% of rides last fiscal year — nearly 20,000 rides — were more than an hour earlier or later than the rider requested.

Even with the aforementioned issues, results from a survey of riders show that most still view Metro Mobility favorably.

More than 80% of respondents were happy with the program’s processes for recertification and making or canceling a ride, and a majority still responded favorably about Metro Mobility ride services. Some raised concerns about inefficiencies in the processes, poor customer service by reservation staff, and ride service issues, and both riders and providers shared worries over the program’s technology for scheduling and tracking rides, the report notes.

Finally, OLA reported several issues with the program’s complaints process, noting that it doesn’t ensure all concerns make it to the Met Council, let alone get addressed, and the council doesn’t have clear guidance for resolving the complaints it does receive.

One of the most notable issues highlighted by OLA is that providers can be penalized $50 for each time they fail to properly forward a complaint to the council but get monthly bonuses of $5,000 if they have no more than one complaint per 2,000 rides, providing little incentive for them to forward complaints.

The report also states that many survey respondents don’t know how to properly file a complaint with the program, and the council doesn’t track whether complainants who want to be contacted about their concerns — about 65% of complainants over the past five fiscal years, according to data — are actually contacted.

OLA offered several recommendations to address the issues its report highlighted, ranging from state lawmakers providing more explicit service requirements to the Met Council updating its processes to address quality issues, track necessary data and properly manage provider payments and customer complaints.

Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle wrote in a response to OLA that the council agrees with the recommendations and is already working to address many of the issues. He also highlighted the impact of the driver shortage but added that contractors “are experiencing success attracting drivers” in recent months, allowing the program to adjust its services, eliminate denials and improve performance. Zelle also credited changes approved last spring by state lawmakers in helping implement new initiatives, replace old buses and improve technology.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), the chair of the Minnesota Senate’s Transportation Committee, released a statement saying OLA’s report shows “Metro Mobility is ineffectively managed.”

“I have heard complaints from countless constituents about these issues, and today’s report only confirms what I and many other legislators already knew to be true,” Dibble said.

“Furthermore, today’s report revealed the Metropolitan Council has improperly paid thousands of dollars in bonuses to the Metro Mobility contracted providers, in direct violation of their own contractual obligations to only receive them when they meet the highest standards of service – while none have ever been required to pay the stipulated penalties for service failures. These issues are only compounded by the failures to address these complaints properly, as also laid out in the report,” he added.

Dibble called Zelle’s response to the report “encouraging,” but said it’s “not enough to address the persistent issues with programs that fall under the oversight of the Metropolitan Council,” and added “further changes must be made.”

Click here to read OLA’s full report.