Overlooking the Obvious? Observations from the Palm Tran Connection Workshop

Good summaries of the 2/28/14 BCC workshop to discuss the future direction of Palm Tran Connection were written by Joe Capozzi in the Palm Beach Post and Andy Reid in the Sun-Sentinel.

We are generally in support of the direction given by the Commission to:

  1. Pursue multiple contracts in lieu of a single-source vendor, since competition will enhance responsiveness and flexibility.
  2. Bring dispatch in-house – this may not be quite the salvation for which BCC voted….see below.
  3. Purchase the vehicles for lease back to the vendors.  We see the opportunity for flexibility cited as well as cost savings.
  4. Free rides on fixed route service  for ADA/TD qualified.
  5. Explore the future use of vouchers and taxis to enhance/expand capability.

But something appears to be lacking in the conclusions drawn in much of the coverage and discussion of Palm Tran Connection and the poor performance by the current vendor, Metro Mobility.  That ‘something’  which seemed apparent throughout the workshop was ‘county oversight and accountability‘.  The various reasons for perceived unacceptable service were listed dispassionately and without any chagrin or admission of responsibility.  Many of these ‘issues’  did not require BCC direction but could or should have been accompanied by firm action plans .

A few examples:

Chaotic dispatching and adherence to schedules was impacted by several issues

  • Drivers unable to locate the rider – going to wrong location or lost in a community
  • Riders without appropriate ‘personal care attendants” thus driver leaving the vehicle to assist the rider into the appointment location
  • Driver waiting for a facility to open (eg rider can’t get in)
  • Riders who can’t be left alone due to their disability

Only Commissioner Berger seemed to question the lack of required personal care attendants.  Everyone else seemed to take for granted that these were missteps by Metro Mobility.  If an ADA or TD qualified rider needs a personal care attendant then the County, who handles the qualification process, should have confirmed that such an attendant accompanies the rider.  To have a driver take on 1) liability 2) leave the vehicle unattended 3) abandon schedule in order to perform personal care functions is certain to impact all of the other riders.  Is there something in the regulations that absolves the rider (or the County in the qualification process) from responsibility for their part of the bargain?

There is a difference between door to door service and a driver replacing the companion role.  As was pointed out in the meeting – if the rider were able to take fixed route service – they would be dropped off and that’s it.  Even a taxi doing door to door would not wait for place to open etc.  So perhaps the biggest issue to the level of service is that the drivers are going beyond what can reasonably be expected.

Taking vehicles out of service to accommodate school trip requests (primarily Charter schools)

Commissioner Abrams rightly questioned that the PBC School system isn’t involved in this.  And is it not obvious that if vehicles are taken out of a route that service and schedules will suffer?  Once again – these are decisions that were made by the County and not Metro Mobility.

It was perceived that bringing dispatch in-house (recommended by staff, consultant and voted unanimously by commission) would solve the above issues.  But one could ask – what will change?  The County staff was responsible for oversight in any case – so if  policy changes are not made to solve these problems, in-house dispatch will not alleviate the problems.

Poor state of equipment

Commissioner Vana did her own investigative work to confirm the poor state of equipment and raised the alarm over conditions.  But why was that necessary?  Was not the administration responsible for oversight and inspections?  Purchase of the vehicles by the county may result in savings, which is great!  But this does nothing to solve the vehicle maintenance issues. Periodic inspections by the County will (and should have been) vital to assessing compliance with legal and contractual obligations for vehicle maintenance.

Need for a strong and specific contract

Several times during the workshop the need for a strong contract (or contracts) was mentioned by staff. OK – whose fault is it if there wasn’t one in place already? Surely not the vendor’s….

Administration has made management changes and they clearly may have been warranted.  But until the County takes full responsibility for the current state of affairs – dramatic improvement in Palm Tran Connection performance may be a long time in coming.

Taxing District Referendum To Be Set for Children’s Services Council

Voter / Taxpayer Opportunity Alert

Taxing District Referendum To Be Set for Children’s Services Council

The Palm Beach Children’s Services Council is one of 8 special taxing districts in the state (Hillsborough, Broward, Martin, Miami-Dade, St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Pinellas are the others ). The Palm Beach taxing district, which levies a tax directly on Palm Beach County real estate (2012 mil rate was .7459), was authorized by Florida Statute in 1986 and created by local referendum on November 4, 1986.

From the 2012 Annual report: ‘The purpose of the Council is to plan, develop, fund and evaluate programs and promote public policies which benefit Palm Beach County’s children and families”

Legislation passed in 2010 required that the Children’s Services Council go before the voters for reauthorization in 2016. Martin County and St. Lucie County go before the voters in those areas this coming November.

The CSC in early December of 2013 petitioned the Palm Beach County Commission to go on the ballot for reauthorization in 2014 … two years earlier than required by state law. The county commissioners have not said yet when they will take the matter up … but it is expected soon.

Palm Beach County Voters and Taxpayers may have a significant opportunity this fall to either reauthorize the existence of this 28 year old taxing district, or failing to do so, conserve and/or redirect public expenditures in a different direction.

Over the next few weeks we will publish facts, gleaned from public records and from the public statements of the CSC itself and its grantees regarding what the taxing district does, how it is managed and specifically where the tax funds are spent.

For the current year, $80.2 million of an approximately $100 million budget is allocated through 66 grants to 38 organizations. Below, in order of percent of total allocation, are the recipients.

Agency % total Web Site
Early Learning Coalition of PBC 36.56% http://www.elcpalmbeach.org/
Florida Dept of Health/Palm Beach County Health Department 9.42% http://pbchd.com/
CP-CTO-Housing Partnership 5.68% http://www.cp-cto.org/housing-partnership
Prime Time 5.64% http://www.primetimepbc.org/
Palm Beach State College 4.94% http://www.palmbeachstate.edu/
Family Central 4.26% http://www.familycentral.org/
Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County 3.53% http://pbcliteracy.org/
Children’s Place at Home Safe 3.48% http://www.helphomesafe.org/
Children’s Home Society of Florida 3.13% http://www.chsfl.org/Home
Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County 3.02% http://www.legalaidpbc.org/
The Arc of Palm Beach County 2.95% http://www.arcpbc.org/
Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies Coalition 2.61% http://www.hmhbpbc.org/
United Way 2.55% http://www.unitedwaypbc.org/
NonProfits First 2.25% http://www.nonprofitsfirst.org/
Easter Seals 1.97% http://www.easterseals.com/
School District of Palm Beach County 1.95% http://palmbeachschools.org/
Families First of Palm Beach County 1.58% http://www.familiesfirstpbc.org/
Friends of Community Services Inc. 1.27% http://www.friendspbc.org/index.php
Sickle Cell Foundation of Palm Beach County 0.72% http://www.sicklecellpalmbeach.org/
Father Flanagan’s BoysTown of Florida 0.71% http://www.boystown.org/
Palm Beach Board of County Commissioners 0.63% http://www.pbcgov.com/countycommissioners/
Children’s Forum 0.55% http://www.fcforum.org/
Children’s Services Council 0.50% http://www.cscpbc.org/
Urban League of Palm Beach County 0.37% http://ulpbc.org/
Center for Family Services 0.30% http://www.ctrfam.org/
Esereh Youth and Family Center Inc. 0.29% http://esereh.org/
Lutheran Services of Florida 0.28% http://lsfnet.org/Pages/LSF_Master.aspx
Palm Beach County Food Bank 0.28% http://www.pbcfoodbank.org/
Nutritious Lifestyles Inc. 0.27% http://www.nutritiouslifestylesonline.com/index.php
Jerome Golden Center/Oakwood Center of Palm Beaches 0.25% http://jeromegoldencenter.org/
Tomas Boiton 0.23% http://citizens4transit.org/
Health Council of Southeast Florida Inc. 0.21% http://www.hcsef.org/navigate-pbc
Resource Depot 0.12% Organization Not Found
Florida Rural Legal Services Inc. 0.10% http://frls.org/
Florida Department of Children and Families 0.09% http://www.myflorida.com/accessflorida/
Palm Beach County Education Commission 0.06% http://pbceducation.com/
Redlands Christian Migrant Association 0.04% http://rcma.org/

Best Practices in Transportation for the Mobility Impaired

While researching our article “Growing Government in Giant Steps: A County Takeover of Palm Tran Connection?”, we encountered an excellent reference for best practices in ADA compliance for public transportation.

See “Innovative Approaches for Increasing Transportation Options for People with Disabilities in Florida” – published by Center for Urban Transportation Research and sponsored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Developmental Disabilities, the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, Inc. and The Able Trust, in 2010.

The above paper analyzed approaches throughout the country – and Chapter 3 highlighted Best Practices. Many communities used a combination of fixed route incentives, door to bus-stop (ADA required), vouchers with approved taxi and transportation companies, and volunteer drivers – all incorporated to provide maximum flexibility, improved access and lower cost per trip and allowing for increased ridership as well. Customer satisfaction was also improved by 24/7 access that taxis provided and ability to make same-day reservations.

Amongst those best practices highlighted in Chapter 3:

Vouchers: Implementing voucher and volunteer programs – especially in rural areas where there is limited public transportation; allowing vouchers to be used to pay mileage reimbursement to volunteer drivers; using taxi or volunteer vouchers for return trips from dialysis treatment to reduce wait times

Provider selection: Contract with multiple providers – annually conducting reviews and requiring participating transportation companies trained in ADA requirements, first aid/CPR, background checks etc.

Trip Rate/Rider Selection: negotiated fixed price trip rates with local taxi operators; Reduce or require no co-payments for dialysis transport; allow participants to schedule directly with participating providers

Billing Oversight: Focal point/administrator for the entire network; smart cards or close monitoring of voucher budget – enhanced by fixed flat rate negotiated w taxi/transportation companies; have driver and rider sign vouchers to document that trip was actually made

Funding: Use FTA funds for mobility management services, technology. Use savings from voucher program to expand service areas. Actively pursue support from charitable organization, non-profit and community groups and foundations.

Growing Government in Giant Steps: A County Takeover of Palm Tran Connection?

Now that the county has decided to end the relationship with Metro Mobility Management Group a year from now, a serious proposal has surfaced to bring the operation into the government – with county-owned vans and equipment, and with county employees with their higher salaries and generous benefits.

If executed as described, it would require the hiring of 416 new county employees, a 7% growth in total staff and a 72% growth in the Palm Tran Organization.

By staff’s estimate, the county would need to purchase 241 new vehicles, and build new facilities for administration, fleet storage and maintenance. In addition to $43M in capital investment, the annual costs for labor and operations would be $34M – 23% higher than today’s $28M with the Metro contract.

How could this possibly make sense?

To understand the thinking, you first have to acknowledge that operations under the Metro contract over the last year have not been smooth. Vehicles in service are older and more worn-out than promised, customer service problems have persisted, and the experience of the elderly and disabled riders has not met expectations. Commissioner Shelly Vana, to her credit, has pushed for changes after going out and experiencing using the service herself. The promise of the Metro contract was for acceptable service levels at lower cost than the previous vendor – a bar that has been difficult for the vendor to achieve.

What is Palm Tran Connection?

Palm Tran Connection delivers about 820K trips a year to a ridership of approximately 13K individuals who are eligible through either the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – an unfunded mandate affecting entities that otherwise provide public transportation (700K trips and 11K riders) or the state’s Transportation Disadvantaged program (123K trips and about 2K riders). TD riders are 90% subsidized by state funds. Using the current year’s $28M budget, the cost per rider is over $2000 per rider, and the average cost per trip is $34 (calculated by dividing the $28M budget by 820K trips/year).

Although there are federally defined requirements for eligibility (ie. what qualifies as “disabled”), it is not strictly a welfare program as riders must pay a fare to use the system, currently $3.50 per trip (about 10% of the cost). If you work the same numbers for the Palm Tran fixed route system, it is not too much different. ($87M fixed route budget divided by 12M trips is $7.25/trip – making the $1.25 average fare with discounts about 17% of the cost).

So what are the real issues?

We will stipulate that Connection provides a needed service to the county’s disabled population, and as long as the county is in the public transportation business, the service is required under the ADA (although the county does exceed requirements by providing service beyond the “3/4 mile from fixed route” demanded by ADA.) The problem is to provide a reasonable level of service at a reasonable price.

Privatization of county functions where it makes sense has been a long-term goal of TAB, as there is body of evidence that suggests that the private sector, particularly when operating in a competitive environment with an incentive to maximize customer satisfaction at the lowest cost, is best suited to delivering a needed service. A government agency, by its nature, is often hampered by other conflicting considerations (eg. politics, union demands, special interests, etc.)

The current Connection system is a hybrid. The contract is sole-sourced, and part of the function (customer service, scheduling) is performed by the government as the county places itself in between the riders and the provider. The vendor’s customer is the county, not the riders.

How much different would it be if multiple vendors could provide the service, perhaps in smaller service areas than the county as a whole. Companies and drivers could be regulated much the way taxi and limousine services are today. By introducing customer choice into the mix, with the county subsidy delivered through a voucher system, the customer service levels would improve – much as they do in any competitive area.

Private sector competitive based solutions for service delivery versus government run enterprise is an age-old question, usually decided along ideological lines. Given the political makeup of Palm Beach County and those who represent their districts, I would expect the “government run” position to have an edge in this discussion. Before taking that step though, we would hope that the Commissioners consider that de-privatizing Palm Tran Connection is most likely an irrevocable step. Regardless of future changes in ridership level (2014 is projected to be 9% less than 2013) or customer needs, a new 416 person county organization with significant capital assets would be here to stay.

Some Alternatives

Some alternatives to a total government-run Connection provided by staff include partial moves such as in-house dispatch, in-house takeover of service in Belle Glade only, and having the county own the vehicles and leasing them to the vendor.

We think allowing competitive service delivery, a voucher system, expediting the growth of existing transportation companies who wish to enter this space would be a rationale alternative as well. In areas that need to be served for which there is little competitive interest, a sole-source vendor should be sought, much like the existing model. Providing incentives for the mobility impaired to utilize the fixed route system is also desirable.

Many government entities face similar challenges, and a number of best practices have emerged. Please see “Best Practices in Transportation for the mobility impaired.”