BOSTON (CBS) - It's called The Ride and its fleet of white sedans and handicapped accessible vans can be seen almost any day, all over eastern Massachusetts.
It's the MBTA's door to door transit service and it's more than just a "ride" for thousands of disabled and elderly clients. "It's a lifeline to many citizens in the Commonwealth," says MBTA General Manager Richard Davey.
But that lifeline is also breaking the MBTA's budget, costing taxpayers nearly $90 million dollars last year alone.
When the I-Team tracked the Ride over the past few months we found it's a system susceptible to abuse and rampant with waste. It's touted as a "shared ride" program, but most of the vehicles we followed had only one passenger on board.
The same scenario played out before our cameras again and again. In one instance, a woman was picked up in downtown Boston and dropped off in Roxbury and she was the only passenger on a large, handicapped accessible van.
"I'd say 25 percent of the time I'm with someone else; it's usually 75 percent of the time I've been by myself," said one disabled user of the Ride.
The I-Team also found Ride drivers with a lot of free time on their hands between customers. And when they were on the road, we found the more expensive, handicapped accessible vans being used to transport people who were ambulatory -- able to walk on their own.
The RIDE costs taxpayers about $40 for each one-way trip. That's four times what it cost when the program began back in 1977. In the last 5 years alone the annual cost of the ride has almost doubled.
"Over the next six years it will cost the state more than a half billion dollars if we keep doing what we're doing today," said state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, whose office has been scrutinizing the Ride.
Sullivan says reforming the Ride could save the MBTA and taxpayers millions of dollars.
"One of the biggest problems is that the Ride has procured big contracts with three providers," Sullivan said. "In other areas [states] use brokers who can work with any available cab company to get the lowest price per ride."
The MBTA's Davey is also concerned. "I won't dispute that there is a better way to do it and the T's been looking at that for the last several months," he said.
Davey acknowledged there is also another issue: to qualify for the Ride, all someone needs is the signature of a health care professional.
"We seem to qualify folks by reviewing a form," Davey said. "We do no in-person assessments right now. I would tell you that's likely to change."
And there's more. Because most of the Ride's trips are for medical appointments, the MBTA could be getting reimbursed by the federal government for close to 50 percent of its costs. But for some reason the MBTA hasn't collected a dime.
"We're allowing a lot of federal money to go by the boards by virtue of the fact that that information isn't being captured and we're not submitting it for reimbursement," Sullivan said, estimating the MBTA has forfeited tens of millions of dollars as a result.
The MBTA, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars making the fixed route system of buses, trains and trolleys more accessible to the disabled and elderly. Davey said a major goal now is to try to get some of the Ride clients back into that system, and away from the more expensive door to door service.
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