Lisa Foltz can’t navigate Washington’s steep terrain in her manually operated wheelchair, so she waited three hours for a Washington Rides paratransit vehicle to transport her home. And when a minibus finally picked her up for a three-block trip, it was a Tri-County Access vehicle from Donora, 28 1/2 miles from the county seat.
“Washington Rides is a disaster right now, an absolute disaster,” fumed Foltz, 55, who lives at the Washington Arbors high-rise, 154 N. College St., Friday, the morning after her long wait. The Washington Rides shared-ride program serves those ages 65 and older, the disabled and those receiving medical assistance.
“If I had my power chair, I could’ve made it in 15 minutes,” said Foltz, who has been using a wheelchair for the past year and a half. “With a manual chair, I could not wheel it that far.”
She said she doesn’t have full use of her arms because of fibromyalgia, and can no longer use a walker because of stress it places on her shoulders.
Thursday afternoon began with Foltz accompanying an 82-year-old aunt to a doctor’s appointment. Her aunt, whom she declined to identify, has Alzheimer’s disease, so she can’t make even short trips alone.
The niece and aunt were picked up, respectively, at Washington Arbors and Evergreen Assisted Living in Washington, and dropped off for a 1:20 p.m. doctor’s appointment on Wellness Way in South Strabane Township. With that completed, the aunt was back at Evergreen at 3 p.m. and Foltz intended to stay for a little more than an hour to get her situated and to tackle some laundry. Foltz arranged to be picked up between 4:30 and 5 p.m., and she was expecting a First Transit vehicle equipped with a lift and straps to secure her wheelchair. She waited and waited, but no ride arrived
“You can’t contact anybody after hours,” Foltz said. “My (blood) sugar was dropping. They had to get me a Coke and a candy bar from a vending machine. Usually, I do have stuff in my purse, but we were only going to the doctor’s and home, so I had no candy, no hard tack, nothing.”
A specially-equipped Tri-County Access minibus from the Mon Valley did show up about 7:45 p.m. Passenger Foltz, after going uphill on North Main and downhill to College Street, rolled into her apartment at 8:02 p.m., more than nine hours after she left.
“If they’re not going to do the job and not be concerned, then you need new people at Washington Rides,” Foltz said. “They left all these people knowing First Transit was three hours behind because of all this construction around.”
At the helm of Washington Rides is Sheila Gombita, executive director of the Washington Transportation Authority.
After discussing the situation with Foltz Friday morning, Gombita told the Observer-Reporter that though the Washington Rides office is manned only until 5 p.m., calls then go to its answering service and notice about a stranded passenger should have been forwarded to the designated employee on call.
Although First Transit was unavailable, Tri-County Access did have a driver with a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, so it was dispatched to Washington at the request of Washington Rides.
Gombita estimated the addition of four or five more First Transit drivers on a regular basis would allow the system to run more smoothly. First Transit, which did not immediately respond to email or telephone inquiries for this story, handles about 60 percent of Washington Rides’ passenger volume with Tri-County Access picking up the remainder in the more densely populated communities of the Mon Valley.
Both contractors are using a new electronic manifest system paired with a global-positioning satellite that aims to streamline trips. “They seem to be doing very well,” Gombita said of Tri-County Access. “They have embraced it.”
She regards the issue with First Transit not one of funding, but finding people who want to work and meet the qualifications to do the job during the necessary hours for pay that averages about $10.50 an hour. Prospective employees must have a clean driving record, be able to operate a vehicle equipped for wheelchairs and must pass a criminal background check, physical and drug and alcohol screening.
“First Transit is committed to providing safe, efficient services for the Washington Transportation Authority and the passengers who use these services,” spokeswoman Stephanie Creech responded in a statement. “We are working closely with the Washington Transportation Authority to resolve any issues affecting the transportation services we provide. To improve these services, First Transit is in the process of providing additional drivers for the Washington Rides services.
“First Transit strives to set the highest standards in safe, reliable transportation and is fully committed to continuous improvement.”
Foltz said Thursday was just the latest time she’s experienced trouble with Washington Rides this summer, and she’s heard First Transit drivers blame the new global-positioning satellite software package the paratransit service began using in May to plan and consolidate trips. Electronic manifests on tablet computers are to direct the driver on the order of pick-ups and drop-offs to improve efficiency with the goal of getting passengers to their destinations on time.
She personally has no quarrel with First Transit. “The dispatchers and drivers, they are great,” said Foltz, who, under the previous manifest system would deal directly with First Transit if she had a problem or experienced a change in schedule.
Heavy traffic and construction detours can wreak havoc with a trip by private car or public transit, “so anything that plays a role in transportation will never be perfect,” Gombita said.
Daily paratransit ridership with Washington Rides is about 400 round trips.