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Rider Complaints Put Palm Tran Connection Contractor on Probation
April 23, 2013
Source: Sun Sentinel, FL
Story by Andy Reid, Sun Sentinel
Complaints from disabled and elderly public transportation riders prompted the Palm Beach County Commission Tuesday to give its troubled contractor three months to fix the problems or face $1.4 million in fines.
The county's contracted paratransit service is supposed to provide door-to-door pickup and delivery through a fleet of privately operated vans and cars that take some of the county's neediest residents to work, school, doctor's appointments and other day-to-day destinations.
But ever since Metro Mobility Management Group in the summer took over operations of those transportation duties, county officials have been inundated with complaints about late pickups, no-shows, drivers getting lost, accidents and other problems.
The County Commission put Metro Mobility on "probation," telling company officials they have until July 15 to improve service by making improvements such as adding vehicles and installing GPS systems — to both help drivers with directions and to track whether drivers are showing up when they are supposed to be there.
Otherwise, the county could push to collect on the $1.4 million in fees the company has racked up for performance problems and other issues. The county could also cancel the contract and bring in other private transportation companies to either supplement or take over Metro Mobility's duties.
"We are still getting phone calls. … We are still having problems," said Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who pushed for the probation period.
But probation doesn't go far enough, according to frustrated riders and others who wanted the County Commission to at least call in reinforcements by striking a new deal with other transit companies to help improve service.
The county — which relies on more than one garbage hauler — is "more efficient at picking up our trash" than its paratransit riders, said Commissioner Shelley Vana who called the situation "shameful."
"I will be referring everyone who gets killed to you all," Vana said in frustration to her fellow commissioners after she cast the only vote against the probation proposal.
Metro Mobility representatives acknowledge that there have been service problems, but contend that they are continuing to make improvements to boost service. The company has called for the county to waive about $1.1 million of the fees.
"While it seems that our efforts may not have always been successful; we have proven since February, when we instituted changes to the program, that we can run the Paratransit system with efficiency and great success," attorney Neil Schiller, who represents Metro Mobility, wrote in a letter to commissioners.
The County Commission in a money-saving move last year opted to make Metro Mobility the lone contractor for Palm Tran Connection. Commissioners awarded the company a five-year contract instead of sticking with its practice of using multiple vendors.
An unexpectedly hurried transition between the previous service providers and Metro Mobility worsened some of the initial problems, which were amplified by difficulties getting new vehicles ordered, according to county staffers. The result was a period of "critical service failures," according to a county report.
After showing signs of improvement "critical" problems resurfaced in November when Metro Mobility had issues with one of its subcontractors.
Since then, Metro Mobility has added vehicles and drivers and turned over scheduling duties to the county.
In February, the company was reporting a 95 percent on-time average for pick-ups, above the 91 percent contract requirement. County staffers have recommended that the commission waive $951,607 of the fees Metro Mobility faces.
"It was really bad. The service was not what it needed to be," Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman said. "Service has substantially improved."
Patricia Hayes, who is blind, questioned Metro Mobility's claims of being on time 95 percent of the time. Hayes contends that late pickups remain frequent and that trips take too long due to drivers not knowing where they are going.
"This happens all the time," Hayes told commissioners.
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