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Published: Friday, 11/7/2003

Paratransit system plagued by glitches

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
 There have been four or five times that were really outrageous,  says Sandra Preston, getting out of a Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service bus, which at times can be late in picking up those who call to request a ride. There have been four or five times that were really outrageous, says Sandra Preston, getting out of a Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service bus, which at times can be late in picking up those who call to request a ride.
SIMMONS / BLADE Enlarge

Sandra Preston made it to physical therapy on time yesterday and actually had a ride waiting for her when the session ended an hour later.

That might not be cause for most to celebrate, but to get to her appointments, Mrs. Preston depends on the Toledo Area Regional Paratransit Service, for which on-time service has been a challenge of late.

“It s one thing after another,” Mrs. Preston said before the trip yesterday from her home near Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park to the MCO Works therapy center near Airport Highway and Holland-Sylvania Road. “There have been four or five times that were really outrageous.”

She s not the only one who s ticked at TARPS. In a letter published in The Blade s Reader s Forum earlier this week, Jim Meinhart, a University of Toledo graduate student, said he has been made late by the paratransit system more often this year than he had been during the previous 12.

Mary Destatte, a wheelchair user who sits on the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority s board of trustees, said she has become so frustrated that she s researching whether TARTA can cancel its contract with Laidlaw Services, the paratransit vans operator.

“I m tired of all the excuses,” Ms. Destatte said, adding that some TARPS riders are afraid to complain about poor service for fear of being branded as troublemakers.

Michael Moore, Laidlaw s project manager for TARPS, said riders should not fear any retaliation.

“We have been encouraging users to complain. We need to hear from them,” Mr. Moore told the TARTA board yesterday.

During a meeting last month with Ms. Destatte and TARTA Trustee Shelly Papenfuse, Mr. Moore blamed the problems on lingering glitches in new scheduling software the service began using in the spring. Yesterday, he said no single cause is predominantly to blame for the trouble - software issues, proper use of on-board computers, and dispatcher performance all need to be looked at.

Laidlaw has assigned an additional manager to TARPS to discuss the service problems with drivers and dispatchers and to work with the dispatchers to try to correct problems as they arise, Mr. Moore said. “There is no silver bullet,” he said. “It s a many-pronged effort” to solve the problems.

TARPS has established daily assigned routes for certain passengers who use the service to commute to work or school, Mr. Moore said, which should eliminate the “surprise factor” for them. Traditionally, paratransit run assignments were created on a day-to-day basis.

As required by federal law, TARPS provides door-to-door van service for passengers in the TARTA service area whose disability or frailty keeps them from using regular TARTA bus service. The transit authority serves Toledo, Ottawa Hills, Sylvania, Waterville, Maumee, Sylvania Township, Spencer Township, Perrysburg, and Rossford.

TARPS vehicles also will travel into neighboring jurisdictions to any site that is within three-quarters of a mile of a TARTA bus route.

According to TARTA policy, passengers should be picked up and dropped off within 15 minutes of their scheduled times, and no trip should last longer than an hour. But riders sometimes find themselves taken many miles out of their way when vans are scheduled to make intermediate drop-offs or pick-ups during their trips.

Excessively early or late rides and extended trips on circuitous routings are not a new problem for TARPS patrons; a major expected benefit of the new scheduling software was a decline in such glitches. But Mr. Moore conceded that adapting the computer program to the local system has taken longer than expected.

There has been gradual improvement, Mr. Moore said, noting that on-time performance has improved monthly since April. In October, 90.2 percent of TARPS runs were reported to be on time, the best yet since the new software was turned on but 3.6 percent worse than in October, 2002.

Mr. Moore said he was surprised that complaints were increasing in spite of the steady improvement, but he acknowledged that it might be because more riders are becoming fed up. And some riders have said a 90 percent on-time goal still means that they ll be late for work, school, or the doctor 1 in 10 times. Mr. Moore said 90 percent is a minimum and that ideally the on-time percentage will be “as high as we can go.”

Mrs. Preston, who has been recovering from hip surgery since February, said a 100-minute TARPS ride made her a half-hour late for her therapy evaluation Sept. 25. In October she had to cancel two sessions because her van was late.

“I can t imagine how someone feels who s been dealing with this for years. It s very frustrating,” Mrs. Preston said while waiting for her pick-up yesterday afternoon. She said she s generally sympathetic to the TARPS drivers, who she said are given “impossible schedules” and sometimes have to cope with irate passengers.

Reliability has been worst during the afternoon rush hour, whereas Sunday trips to church almost always run on time, Mrs. Preston said.

Mr. Moore agreed that the evening rush “is a time when we might be susceptible to delays,” but he said savvy drivers and adroit dispatchers should be able to change routes and juggle assignments to nip most problems in the bud.



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