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Digital threat delays rides for people with disabilities Dispatch system shut down, stranding some passengers

Capital - 1/18/2020

MobilityLink, the Maryland Transit Administration's transportation service for people with disabilities, left some riders stranded earlier this week after detecting a "digital threat" to its dispatching system.

The Maryland Department of Transportation shut down MTA MobilityLink's dispatching system for about 14 hours Monday after IT safeguards detected and successfully stopped an attempt to breach the department's firewall, MTA Administrator Kevin Quinn said.

MobilityLink's operators and drivers relied on "push-to-talk" radios to manually communicate while the system was down, with about 80% of rides performed on time Monday, Quinn said. But the impact of the "digital threat" strained an already tense relationship between the agency and the riders who rely on its paratransit services.

Several of the approximately 6,500 riders who used MobilityLink that day reported that the dispatch delays led to missed doctors appointments or prolonged periods of time without access to a bathroom.

In 2017, the MTA settled a class-action lawsuit brought by the advocacy group Disability Rights Maryland on behalf of thousands of riders. The suit alleged the service, then called Mobility, was routinely late, left people seeking rides on hold for long periods, and denied passage or revoked access with little explanation.

The agency revamped its dispatch system under a new $299 million contract in 2019. But the amount of time drivers were late doubled while the three-year contract was being implemented, The Baltimore Sun reported in April.

By the summer months, Quinn said, MobilityLink's on-time rates improved, reaching 90% in both June and July. On-time rates were 88% in December and 89% thus far in January, according to data provided by the agency.

"Our riders should have faith in the Mobility paratransit system, and they should certainly rely on us," Quinn said. "As these threats happen - we're on an electronic system - we'll do our absolute best to respond in the best way possible. I want to convey that we're absolutely committed to providing excellent service."

Still, several riders said their trust in MobilityLink's reliability eroded over the past few years as they experienced long waits for rides and dropped calls to operators.

Tema Lust has used MobilityLink for "about a year too long," she said Thursday. The 67-year-old said she relies on the service to get to and from doctors appointments as she battles colon cancer.

On Monday, Lust's ride to an appointment at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson was delayed by about 45 minutes. When she finally arrived to the doctor's office, she was told she had missed her appointment and could not be seen.

"Every single time I've used them, I've had a problem," Lust said. "They have never once been on time."

And a couple of good Samaritans offered Lust a ride home Thursday when her MobilityLink ride again failed to arrive on time, she said.

Riders qualify to use the service by going through a certification process that shows they would have trouble walking to and from transit stops, boarding a standard bus or standing a long time. The service is offered, like the MTA's fixed-route buses, in Baltimore and parts of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. It is used to get riders to work, to appointments and anywhere else they want to go.

The MTA extended call center hours until 7:30 p.m. Monday in response to the delays and honored same-day appointments for rides on Tuesday.

Riders like 50-year-old Ivis Burris said her use of a motorized wheelchair limits her ability to get a ride from a friend or to call a taxi when MobilityLink rides are late.

Burris' ride was delayed Monday, and by the time she arrived home around 3:45 p.m., her home care aid's shift had ended. She was left waiting until 8 p.m. for her night nurse to arrive to help her use the restroom - nearly 12 hours since she had last relieved herself.

"If the system shuts down ... we're stuck," Burris said. "I feel stuck."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

Caption: The Maryland Transit Administration's MobilityLink buses were affected Monday by an information technology threat, causing problems for some riders.

Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun

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