Sunday, January 28, 2007

From the Saturday January 27 LA Times

O.C. transit officials rethink contract for troubled Access paratransit program

Veolia Transportation has problems getting to riders on time and getting them to their destinations.
By David Reyes, Times Staff Writer

January 27, 2007
Dorothy Miller was getting blood drawn and a prescription filled when the white Access bus rolled up to Kaiser Permanente in Garden Grove to take her home.

Miller, 86, who doesn't drive and uses a walker, is among thousands in Orange County who rely on the Access paratransit program, paying just $5 for round-trip transportation.

"The Access bus has been a blessing to me," she said after van driver Maria Moser helped her to her seat. "I use it to go shopping, exercise and the doctors."

But seven months after Oak Brook, Il.-based Veolia Transportation, one of the nation's largest transportation companies, took over a $30-million-a-year contract to provide paratransit services in Orange County, Veolia is in trouble.

Drivers have been late with pickups and hazy on destinations, sometimes getting there an hour late or longer, prompting numerous complaints from disabled riders who have missed appointments or been left waiting at hospitals, medical centers and shopping plazas.

The Orange County Transportation Authority has fined Veolia $300,000 for failing to meet contract standards.

"The single biggest issue has been buses being excessively late, in addition to problems due to difficulties with scheduling the buses, and drivers having trouble getting to the pickup points," said Erin Rogers, OCTA manager of transportation services.

In one instance, a blind woman complained about a bus driver who asked her for directions and where to make turns. "Then they couldn't make her appointment because they were late and she was taken home instead," said Christie Rudder, an advocate for the disabled with the Dayle McIntosh Center, a Garden Grove agency that helps those with disabilities, which fielded the woman's complaint.

Arnie Pike, 68, of Placentia, who began using a wheelchair after suffering a stroke 10 years ago, said he recently scheduled a 5:30 p.m. pickup at Cypress College. During a phone call, the dispatcher told him not to worry, that the driver would be there shortly. The bus showed up at 6:45 p.m.

"We think the driver and dispatcher need to be more honest to the people who use this service," he said.

Veolia is under 90-day review by OCTA, which oversees the program and has hired a consultant to examine Veolia's paratransit operations and make a recommendation on Veolia's future to the board in mid-March. Veolia took over from Laidlaw Transportation in July after winning the bid.

The transportation company recently met with OCTA Chairwoman Carolyn Cavecche and pledged to improve its services.

"If Veolia can't fulfill its obligations, OCTA is willing to make some tough choices," Cavecche said, adding that Veolia was selected because its bid was $13 million less than the next-lowest bids and that it promised better bus scheduling than its competitors, including Laidlaw.

"As far as I'm concerned, they have not lived up to the contract," Cavecche said.

OCTA officials could recommend splitting paratransit operations with another company or even rebidding the contract, board members said.

Veolia officials have told the OCTA that they failed to hire enough bus drivers and had problems training them, and experienced scheduling difficulty because of new software.

"I think there were issues that Veolia could have prepared for better, and the preparation also had to do with getting [data] systems working," said Sharon Crenchaw, Veolia's project director in Orange County.

In addition, a majority of Access customers live in and travel to the northern part of the county where most of the hospitals, medical clinics and dialysis centers are located, she said. This means paratransit buses travel where traffic is heaviest.

Crenchaw stressed the sheer size of the paratransit operation and the difficulties of managing a program that picks up 4,500 riders daily, and dispatches more than 230 paratransit buses in an urban area with "very heavy traffic patterns."

"I come from the Washington, D.C., area," Crenchaw said. "Traffic is heavy there, but here, our drivers encounter very heavy traffic patterns that start to peak around 2 p.m."

Laidlaw faced heavy traffic as well but generally had a good record for on-time pickups, OCTA officials said.

Crenchaw said Veolia has tried to be innovative, adding taxis during peak hours and installing new software.

Paratransit services under the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have five contractors administered through a nonprofit agency that oversees service in 41 cities, an MTA spokesman said. Cost is about $83 million a year.

For months, board members in Orange County have heard complaints from the disabled community about the transportation problems. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, transportation must be provided to riders certified as disabled who live farther than three-quarters of a mile of the nearest public bus stop.

To help keep fares low, funding comes from the state, a federal grant, and a portion of the county's Measure M, a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax, an OCTA spokesman said.

Greg Winterbottom, a disabled Villa Park resident who helped found the Dayle McIntosh Center and is now on the OCTA board, has jokingly called Access "OCTA's expensive taxi service for the handicapped."

OCTA board members have held long discussions on Veolia's paratransit operation, some suggesting spending more on taxis or finding an alternative system. Under Veolia, OCTA spends about $24.21 per rider, down from $25.76 a year earlier.

OCTA officials say that in Las Vegas the cost per rider is $35.84, Seattle $25.48, and Washington D.C., $23.32.

Supervisor John M.W. Moorlach, who is on the OCTA board, said the program needed evaluation and suggested the board might consider a hybrid program, such as also having a fleet of taxis and exploring the use of existing dispatch services for buses and taxis.

If Laidlaw is called in, the company is ready, said Irwin Rosenberg, Laidlaw's vice president for business development.

Laidlaw also had rider complaints about service, he said. But the company's on-time performance was well above Veolia's, he said.

"Veolia said that they had people who could come in and perform miracles … and be more innovative," Rosenberg said.

"Well, the customers are the ones who are losing on this. They had something that worked, and it doesn't work now."

The OCTA answer to the previous post!

Thank you so much for your email. OCTA is working directly with the contractor to resolve these problems. This means the staff is going to Veolia and working hand in hand with the Veolia staff. Some very positive staff changes have been made by Veolia within this last week. We are already seeing the effects of these changes. This morning at 7:00 am the contractor was at 96.8% for on time performance. Now this is raw data and will change slightly as the data is adjusted. The contract states 94%. The dispatching procedures and schedules have been revised to address all of the concerns that you stated. Now this won’t all be fixed over night but it is moving in a positive direction.

We had the programmer from Trapeze out and he adjusted settings which have speeded up the system. Trapeze is used by most large transit agency’s. We are in the process of cleaning up the schedule change that occurred in December. We will see a positive effect of this next week. Moving Mr. Jerry Dullack into scheduling as the Manager is one of the changes I mentioned. Also, Veolia has hired a Manager over dispatch which the effects have been immediate. Additional staff changes will be made as needed in the very near future.

I agree with you that most of us are not real coherent early in the morning. Because they did not get the schedules until almost 8:00pm the night before they were having to make over 700 phone calls. They did not want to call customers too late so some were made in the morning. The problem was caused by trying to fix run templates for efficiency. This has been corrected so that the customer knows at the time of the booking what time the bus will be there.

OCTA is always concerned when our customers are not getting the proper service they deserve. Please be assured we have monitored the service from day one. The OCTA staff monitors the service on a daily service. We hired the contractor to do the job and tried to stay out of there way. OCTA staff is now working as a team with Veolia to smooth things out. We are now moving in the right direction. We will be glad to come to your next meeting, if you like, to explain all of the changes that have been made. Please be assured we are working very hard to give good customer service.

Email to OCTA Thursday January 25, 2007

I was informed that the contract with Violia might be in serious jeopardy. I would like to speak candidly about this development if it is indeed true. I believe there just might be an easier and less costly manner of achieving the desired result without having to endure the re-invention of the wheel. My observation of the January 8 Board of Directors Meeting left me with the sense that the Board was grappling with the issue and they weren’t aware of the root causes of many of the problems. The Trapeze software MAY be part of the problem? Is it? Is it simply a training problem? Will a new service provider be in any better position to master the software’s idiosyncrasies? Why did the Call-Center terminals slow down? What changed? Why? Whatever changed needs to be undone! Recover and/or revert to the previous system! It wasn’t perfect but it was much better than the current bottleneck! Contrary to popular belief, systems can regress!!

As was said during our face-to-face meeting at the Multiple Sclerosis Society, “We want OCTA to succeed in this endeavor!” There are some basic rules of Customer Service, etiquette, respect and common courtesy that OCTA needs to re-enforce. Little things like don’t call the customer by their first name! They are Mr. X or Ms Y. Do not call a customer at 6:50am to tell them the scheduled departure window when the request was made more than 48 hours earlier. I know fully able-bodied persons that can’t function at that hour let alone some that are disabled and/or senior citizen members of the community. Think about who the customer is. Think about their limitations. Then act accordingly! I don’t get the sense that there is anyone watching over the process in real time! Proactive management prevails, but when that model fails there is no reactive model to fall back on!

I maintain the opinion that this CAN be done! And, I have noticed a lot more cooperative chatter on the radios while riding the ACCESS bus. I deem that to be a step in the right direction.

Can you tell me this minute how many customers are still waiting for pickups with 30 minute windows that have expired? Can anyone tell me? Does anyone know and are they working to ensure that the customer whose window expires next is serviced within the 30 minute constraint? That’s a radio call I haven’t heard. Nor is one that questions a driver that is running late.

January 8, 2007 OCTA Board of Directors Meeting

Shirley Cero and I attended today’s OCTA Board of Directors Meeting. It was wrought with some bad vibes. Some of the Directors seemed to present a rather defeatist attitude with respect to Access’s ongoing customer satisfaction and poor performance statistics. It seemed to me that there was an underlying negative attitude toward the ACCESS customer base. Some of the Directors and OCTA staff seemed willing to accept the poor performance and excessive complaints as the norm when dealing with the ACCESS customer base. There were some vague references to, “Throwing money at the problem”, “Those people” and persons with developmental disabilities.

Looking around the room I noted an abundance of officials from a number of cities in the county, media and Orange County officials. Looked like a good opportunity to advocate so….Surprise, surprise… I couldn’t keep my damned mouth shut.

I rose to put a face on the customer, to tell them how important ACCESS is to its customers, that the customer wants them to succeed, to express my belief that the service level could attain a 94% on-time standard. That if “Brown” could make a nation-wide effort to eliminate left turns then OCTA could find a way to better their operational model. That some real-time, root cause analysis and monitoring of the current situation IN THE FIELD would help. And, I offered our help if the OCTA needed it. At least I was able to make a sincere and compassionate statement of our peer’s needs and I don’t think I came across as a person with developmental disability. I also praised Violia and OCTA staff, though not by name, for meeting with us to further our understanding of the current situation.

Hey, at least the LA Times reporter in the room listened and took good notes!

Violia management, including Eric Zandhaus and the General Manager, as well as the OCTA’s Erin Rogers approached me after the meeting to express their gratitude for the willingness to express my opinion during the meeting.

But I am somewhat bothered by the Board’s feeling that it can’t win this one. While I might not agree with all they do-- at least they do. Somehow that seems better than having them stick their collective heads in the sand.