New Paratransit system faces rough road in Surprise

Transdev Operations Manager Mike Lee shows resident Carol Wiener, right, the wheelchair accessibility of the new van during a Paratransit outreach meeting June 14, 2017 at City Hall in Surprise. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]
Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

The opening weeks of the new Paratransit (aka Dial-A-Ride) service model were not smooth in Surprise.

This Valley Metro program replaced the old system of rides through Total Transit (Discount Cab) with three options for ADA-certified riders, residents age 65 or older and economically disadvantaged residents. Each of those modes — the Ride Choice program with two cab companies, the Paratransit van for multi-person trips outside the city and the bus to and from the Surprise Senior Center — has faced some problems since the program changed July 1.

Regular users of the program had trouble loading money on their Ride Choice cards by July 1, in part because the calls for and administration of those cards was handled by the MJ Management office in Baltimore.

As of July 14, resident Joe Urshan had not received his card, though he was told it will arrive early this week. Councilman Roland Winters and many others received the cards four days before the program and faced various roadblocks trying to load money on it.

“The whole rollout was absolutely terrible,” Mr. Winters said.

He said people who utilize the Valley Metro system should have received Ride Choice cards June 27. Mr. Winters ssaid he spoke to six different people at MJM between June 27 and July 1 and received six different answers.

Also, the three-hour time difference with Baltimore pushed some of those initial calls back. Mr. Winters said when calling MJM on June 28, he was told he could not put the funding on the Ride Choice card with a credit card.

He said the alternative was to mail them a check but that would take 10 days which, so funding would not be there by the time the program started on July 1.

Roland Winters

Mr. Winters booked a 10:15 a.m. pickup July 1 with AAA Cab, the new Ride Choice option in Surprise. He said AAA was late and just made an 11 a.m. ribbon cutting in time.

“They never realized how much land they have to cover (in Surprise),” Mr. Winters said.

AAA Cab had no idea about the program until that morning, Mr. Winters said, and had no machine to swipe a Ride Choice card in their cabs. Conversely, he said, Discount Cab had the card swiper on day one, was well aware of the program and has been providing the service.

July 3 was the first day for the Senior Center bus program. And only one of the two expected buses was available.

“There were several challenges to the launch of the new service the first few days after the launch (July 1). We were to have two Senior Center buses go into service and only one showed for service. We currently have 17 people signed up for the Senior Center Bus Service. After we inquired about the missing bus, Valley Metro informed us that Transdev was still in the process of training drivers and that was the reason why only one bus was available at the start. There was also a missed pick-up through Ride Choice at the Senior Center that first week. City staff was able to take that customer home and another staff member drove a meal out to a customer that was unable to secure a bus pick-up, said Seth Dyson, Surprise Director of Human Service & Community Vitality. “We have noticed improvements (in week two) and are confident that the kinks are getting worked out that will meet the needs of our residents that utilize these services.”

Mr. Urshan said his experience has improved in the last week and no provider has denied him service while he waits for his card. He did have to inform his AAA Cab driver where a medical building was, since the company is a bit unfamiliar with Surprise.

And he was surprised initially, that his name was not on the master list.

“I’ve been in there the last few years. I have an ADA platinum pass,” he said.

He had an issue with wait times during a pickup for the Paratransit van.

“Fifteen minutes turned out to be an hour for the Paratransit van. It was parked in the parking lot and I ended up looking around and finding it, but I wouldn’t have known what it was,” Mr. Urshan said.

Valley Metro has informed Mr. Dyson and other city officials that Transdev, which handles Paratransit, and their business partners have taken new steps or are about to implement some changes to provide the expected quality service.

Those changes, according to Valley Metro, include:
• Transdev bringing in experienced staff from service areas outside of Phoenix to support the local operations team and call center. Local drivers continue to be hired and trained.
• The call center staff doubling for increased coverage and reduction of customer on-hold times.
• Increasing the number of dispatch staff has been increased to improve service monitoring and on-time performance.
• Adding paratransit vehicles to be staged in the Northwest Valley to support service in El Mirage, Surprise, Youngtown, Peoria and the Sun Cities.
• Providing drivers with phone numbers (when available) to call customers upon arrival.
• Customers who are placed on-hold waiting for a call center agent are now able to receive a call back without losing their place in line.
• Valley Metro and Transdev are implementing procedures to ensure that any customer who reports a late trip is assigned to a supervisor who will be personally responsible for ensuring that the trip is provided as quickly as possible.

Mr. Dyson said the only time a person calls MJM is to add money to their Ride Choice cards, not to book a ride. They call the actual cab company to book the trip.

Mr. Winters said the rollout of the new program should have been phased in over a couple weeks to work out the bugs in the new system. He is worried about how these issues in early July affected residents that rely almost solely on the service.

“At least I have options. These people need a ride to dialysis or the hospital. I feel sorry for them,” Mr. Winters said.

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