Tuesday, January 26, 2010

People with disabilities in Detroit say para-transit services unreliable during contract dispute

From The Detroit News:

DETROIT -- For years, Rosalind Shaw was comfortable using the city's para-transit service. On most days, the 46-year-old visually impaired woman said she was picked up by drivers who were on time and sensitive to her disability.

But with an ongoing contract dispute with its one-time sole para-transit service provider, the city hired others ranging from taxicabs to van services. That's when Shaw said she saw a difference in service -- drivers who tended to be rude, unfamiliar and unrecognizable vans picking her up and dropping her off, and problems scheduling rides over the phone.

"My thing is (the city) could have done that transition a whole lot better because so many of us were in the dark," Shaw said.

Armed with complaints from Detroiters like Shaw, advocates for the disabled and seniors are gearing up for a battle with the Bing administration to pressure it into resolving its problems with Veolia Transportation, which has sued the city in federal court for breach of contract and to recoup $5.4 million.

City officials, who call the para-transit service MetroLift, dispute that figure and said it did dole out $2 million before Veolia officials terminated the contract in early November. Veolia's contract included operating the call center to set up rides.

Now the city is saving $2 million a year in part because the transportation department handles all calls and is spreading out the business to other contractors at a flat rate, officials contend. Detroit has provided MetroLift service since 1997.

Some of the disabled para-transit riders aren't convinced that they are receiving the best service and plan to file complaints with the Federal Transportation Administration to probe possible Americans with Disabilities Act violations by the city. Disabled advocates have also enlisted attorney Richard Bernstein who successfully sued the city under then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to force ADA compliance on city buses.

The complaints from a segment of the 1,200 para-transit riders against the drivers include using bungee cords to tie down wheelchairs in unkempt vans, not showing up on time or dropping clients at the wrong addresses, speeding and other reckless driving, talking on cell phones while driving and failing to show sensitivity to the needs of the riders.

City officials say they do not owe what Veolia alleges and that the transportation firm's service garnered complaints and federal violations that prompted the city to revisit the service. Although they admit some initial problems during the transition to five new companies providing para-transit, they believe service is winning over critics.

The city is now using Checker Cab, Enjoi Transportation, Lakeside Division with plans on contracting with two more firms for its para-transit service. The city pays the various firms a flat $16 per ride, city officials said.

But with brisk, snowy days upon the city, disabled advocates warn that the problems coupled with bad weather could be a recipe for disaster that will further anger residents who have come to depend on para-transit.

"If it snows and it's slick, and God forbid if something happens, then you've got a movement on your hands," said the Rev. David Bullock, pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church and an advocate for the disabled. "I don't think the disabled really have a voice," but he warned that the dispute "might become a catalyst for a larger movement."

Charlie Beckham, one of the mayor's group executives who oversees the Detroit Department of Transportation, said the city "tried to resolve that dispute" through several meetings. He is incredulous about some of the complaints, insists that drivers are following ADA standards and believes Veolia is responsible for fanning the flames among a select few.

Beckham said that although Veolia has been with the city a long time and had a contract through 2011, the MetroLift service it provided was "not always to the best." Having more than one company provide MetroLift service is more prudent, he said.

"They won't tell you, but we got out of compliance several times with FTA when Veolia was providing the service," Beckham contended. "Things ranged from not picking up customers to missing them. Veolia can't hold themselves totally absolved when they in fact were the only vendor."

Valerie Michael, a spokeswoman for Veolia which is based in Illinois, said that DDOT forced the end of the contract by not paying the millions owed, taking over the call center where reservations and scheduling are made and hiring other vehicle companies to transport passengers.

Michael said "we have heard that claim" regarding alleged violations by Veolia, but "there are remedies written into the contract" that gives the company time to fix problems and levy damages on Veolia.

"We have never received either of those," she said. "Fixing something when we haven't been told when there's an issue and certainly when the contract remedies have not been acted upon ... draw your own conclusions."

Lisa Franklin, the founder and executive director of the disability rights advocate group Warriors on Wheels, said she'sheard horror stories of the blind almost run over by cabs or dirty, rusted-out vans without proper equipment to lock down wheelchairs.

Franklin, who is wheelchair-bound but does not use the para-transit services, said she and other disabled passengers want the city to rehire Veolia because their 63-van fleet is what residents feel most comfortable in based on numerous complaints she's fielded.

"This is getting ready to be ugly and we want to prevent this before it happens. We're trying to have (the city) hear us if we have to have 1,000 wheelchairs up Woodward Avenue."

Representatives from Enjoi did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement, Timothy J. McCarthy, president and chief operating officer of Checker Cab, said "drivers that are assigned to para-transit runs are ADA trained and meet DDOT requirements." The company declined to address specific complaints.

Bernstein, who has encouraged disabled passengers to begin filing complaints to the federal government to prompt an investigation, said he doesn't want to sue the city because it takes time and money. But Detroit officials, he said, must abide by federal guidelines for providing transportation for the disabled.

"Bottom line, I don't care how the city becomes compliant," Bernstein said. "It's not a debate. Period. The law does not allow for any defenses."

Beatrice Segur, who is wheelchair-bound, said she has been complaining so much about the new service that Enjoi officials know her by name. At times, the drivers come too early, often operate vehicles that are dingy and smell like gas and have malfunctioning equipment to lift her onto the van, she said.

"I'm extremely concerned about my safety," said Segur, who uses the service to get to church and other social activities. "That's my biggest concern. I have told them a couple of times to slow down. Nothing is perfect, but I like the professionalism of Veolia. The people they are sending now are just ragtag."

But Ollie Lester, who is blind, said she's had no problems with the new service providers. For her, the ride is comfortable and gets her to where she's going faster without having to get ready hours in advance to travel with several others in a van that makes several stops.

Lester, who co-chairs DDOT's local advisory council for the elderly and disabled, acknowledged that the transition hasn't been the smoothest but insisted that "these are some of the complaints" that a segment of disabled Detroiters have always had.

She said it should be up to the passenger to tell DDOT when calling your disability so that the wrong vehicle isn't sent. She's had no problems with rudeness from drivers -- although they did come to the wrong house once or twice.

"I think that people don't like change when they get used to something," she said.