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.

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