Transit riders voice complaints at packed meeting

August 25, 2014
A crowd of mostly 70 unhappy paratransit users spilled onto the sidewalk outside the TRIPIL office in Washington Monday afternoon. - Barbara S. Miller / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Publicity surrounding Lisa Foltz’s three-hour wait for a wheelchair-accessible paratransit van to drive her three blocks to her home at Washington Arbors earlier this month unleashed a flood of complaints from others who are also upset with unreliable service and are seeking improvements from First Transit, the contractor which handles scheduled-ride service in Washington and, generally, in western parts of the county.

About 70 people jammed the office of Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living Monday afternoon to air problems they experienced with Washington Rides paratransit, which offers door-to-door service.

Daniel Kleinmann, who moderated the session, said 10 people is a typical turnout for TRIPIL’s transportation task force. He called the lack of reliable paratransit “one of the biggest issues in Washington.” TRIPIL aims to help its clientele live as independently as possible.

Some of those in attendance defended the Cincinnati-based First Transit and laid blame squarely at the feet of Washington County Transportation Authority’s Washington Rides schedulers and a software program that began in May to consolidate trips. A group of McGuffey Senior Citizens – Arlene Ludwin, Kate Walton, Nancy Jako and Dorothy Myers – displayed hand-painted signs supporting First Transit and its drivers.

Others, however, had opposite experiences. Camille Crivaro of Canonsburg told of a driver whose conduct escalated from rudeness to harassment, causing her so much distress she sought hospital treatment for an aggravated heart condition.

David Brecht presented information about a team from Center in the Woods, California, arriving late for its dartball tournament in Canonsburg, then having to cut its game short because a van making the return trip appeared hours before the time scheduled. Team members were told if they didn’t board, they’d have to find their own way back to Brownsville, a 28-mile ride.

“Somebody needs a little sensitivity training,” added Brecht, who is president of the advisory board at Center in the Woods.

Bob Zinkhan of Washington said his 8-year-old autistic son had two-hour bus trips to and from a therapy program in McMurray, and the boy traveled as far as South Park without the use of a seatbelt or booster seat. Zinkhan said a First Transit driver passed their house without discharging the child just so the driver could stick to First Transit’s manifest. On another occasion when a teacher went inside a building to retrieve the child’s booster seat, the driver refused to wait and abandoned him. A family friend came to the rescue because Zinkhan and his wife were both at work.

Tracy Wishnok of Bell Mead said her shopping trip ended with a driver embarrassing her in front of a van load of people.

Chris Nimal said the overloading of a sedan would have made a trip from Bridgeville with his mother both illegal and unsafe so they waited a total of three hours for another vehicle to pick them up.

Linda Wachtler of Houston said she is picked up for her kidney dialysis treatments at 5:07 a.m., and she waited for hours at the clinic for a ride home, ending her ordeal at 1:30 p.m. A recent trip home went by way of Mingo Creek County Park.

Washington County Commission Vice Chairman Diana Irey Vaughan said her mother is a diabetic dialysis patient who experienced similar difficulties. She asked if a single point for reporting problems could be set up so that both private and public agencies would have access to the same information. “We should see more improvement over the next two months,” Irey Vaughan told the crowd.

LaVerne Collins, director PennDOT’s bureau of Public Transportation in Harrisburg, addressed the trip-consolidating software that some claim is to blame for poor service. Collins said the pilot for the Ecolane software system was in Adams and Montgomery counties in 2012. “We’ve spent a lot of time tweaking it in 14 to 15 counties across the state,” she said. “As Sheila (Gombita) said, public transportation is not perfect. Your own vehicle is not perfect.”

According to a summary Executive Director Sheila Gombita compiled of the two private companies providing paratransit service to the Washington County Transportation Authority’s Washington Rides program, the week of week of Aug. 4 was a study in contrasts for First Transit. The firm’s on-time performance was 93 percent Aug. 4 in 405 trips completed. But on-time performance plummeted to 63 percent Aug. 7, the day of Foltz’s three-hour wait for a three-block trip that was eventually dispatched from Tri-County Access in the Mon Valley community of Donora. First Transit’s on-time performance dropped further Aug. 11, when 55 percent of the 426 trips were on time.

Tri-County Access, by contrast, had no day in August with on-time performance lower than 90 percent, a one-time occurrence Aug. 16, when 119 trips were completed. It achieved a stellar 99 percent on-time performance Aug. 11 with 256 trips.

“They have more drivers and more availability on the roads, and that’s why we believe they are able to perform at a higher level,” Gombita said of Tri-County Access. The Mon Valley firm schedules about 12 to 13 trips per driver compared with 17 to 18 for those employed by First Transit.

Beverly Edwards, senior vice president for First Transit in Upper St. Clair, said three drivers were hired since Lisa Foltz went public with her story, and they are now making practice runs. A training class of another three to four drivers will then embark.

“We are continually adding people and adding routes,” Edwards said. First Transit had about 27 routes per day as part of Washington Rides, but it is increasing to 33.

“They have definitely tried to put more drivers on the road,” Gombita confirmed of First Transit.

A local entrepreneur used the forum to plug her recent endeavor. Deb Crouse of Washington said she instituted the Giddy Up N Go transportation service and commented, “We don’t get any subsidy money. We’re here to pick up the broken pieces.”

In addition to Irey Vaughan, Commissioner Harlan Shober and Scott Fergus, director of administration for Washington County were also on hand at the gathering.

“I don’t use public transportation,” said State Rep. Brandon Neuman, who also attended, but because the programs about which many had complaints receive state tax dollars, he offered, “We need to hear the good, the bad and the ugly.”

TRIPIL plans a followup meeting for 1 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29, at its offices to see if paratransit service has improved in a month’s time. TRIPIL also provided attendees with copies of a transportation log so those who have complaints can document the date, time, driver, issue and destination in an attempt to troubleshoot problems.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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