WAILUKU - Maui Economic Opportunity agreed to spend the next 90 days improving its Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit program and to report back to a council committee after the panel heard testimony from several disgruntled riders Thursday afternoon.
The Maui residents with disabilities complained of long wait times, untrained drivers and a new computer system to County Council members on the Housing, Human Services and Transportation Committee in the hearing in the Council Chambers.
"It's not a taxi, but we should be treated with dignity," rider Vivian Lindsey told the committee. "We're not like a bunch of suitcases they pick up, because that's how we feel."
Andrew Valentine complains about Maui Economic Opportunity’s Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit program to the County Council’s Housing, Human Services and Transportation Committee on Thursday afternoon in Council Chambers. The 69-year-old Kihei resident has been disabled since 1974 and suffers from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries and other issues.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
The county's transportation contract for riders with disabilities has about 800 clients and was previously run by Roberts Hawaii for five years. MEO took over the curb-to-curb program July 1 and has been dealing with complaints from riders.
In the first month after the change, county Transportation Director Jo Anne Winer reported receiving several hundred calls and complaints. While the department and MEO slowly improved the program in the following months, riders said things regressed after a new computer scheduling system was installed in early November.
"I don't have a disability, but I work with people with disabilities and, from my end, if they wait, I wait," caregiver Francis Durham said. "I know how they feel. I have clients that are disabled. I have a son that is disabled. Most of them are very grateful for paratransit service. Otherwise, they can't get around, but we've got to remember these people are different.
"If they're delayed that makes them impatient, grouchy and some tend to take it more personally, but this is all brought on by things affecting their lives."
Durham said that she has accompanied disabled riders who have had to wait hours to be picked up or dropped off - which is a major concern for some who need to get "out of the chair and into bed" due to their health.
Lyn McNeff, chief executive officer of MEO, said that her agency is allowed 30-minute windows for rider pickups under ADA rules.
She cited that as part of the reason for complaints about delays.
Other riders complained that some of the drivers were not properly trained to handle different types of wheelchairs and to safely secure passengers. Rider Andrew Valentine said that one driver spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to strap him into the bus.
"They spend a lot of time at your house trying to hook you up," Valentine said. "If that's done in the classroom, when they get on the road it's one, two, three. A lot of times with the new drivers they're learning on the job."
Frank Pruneau added that one driver did not store the liftgate for wheelchairs and was about to drive away before riders stopped him. Pruneau also said that he waited 2-1/2 hours to get home one day and had to cancel his caregiver, who could only be with him for four hours a day.
Following the meeting, Winer defended MEO, saying that the nonprofit always has been "responsive" and looking to "prevent repeat mistakes" since taking over the paratransit contract.
"Anytime an individual makes any kind of a complaint the first thing we do is pull the video (from the bus) to make sure safety is adhered to at all times," she said. "If there's any driver error or defect we always try to independently verify that no matter who the rider is.
"If it's a training issue, a safety issue, a personality issue, whatever it might be, we're always welcoming suggestions by the riders and approaching situations straight on."
To solve some of the issues, McNeff and Chief Programs Officer Debbie Cabebe have helped some riders transition to other transportation bus services, such as the Ala Hou program and the dialysis shuttle. McNeff said that those programs allow for more flexibility in scheduling.
Regarding the computer system, McNeff said that early problems were attributed to the Global Positioning System and inaccurate calculations of times based on speed limits and distances. The computer system was designed by Ecolane of King of Prussia, Pa.
"This system is tailored for Maui," she said.
The scheduling system had to be changed, said Winer and MEO officials. They said that the old system for scheduling was not efficient and would not have been able to keep up with the increase in paratransit riders, which Cabebe expects to double in the next five years.
Under the old system, Cabebe said, schedulers would routinely work until 10 p.m. or later, and drivers were left wondering what their work times would be the next morning.
"Now, by 5:30 p.m. the schedule is created and is optimized to deal with changes," she said.
Committee Chairwoman Stacy Crivello appreciated the efforts of MEO. After listening to riders' concerns, she asked that the nonprofit agency report back to her committee after 90 days.
"We recognize that changes oftentimes bring chaos, but I'm sure they'll continue to monitor the service and better serve their clients," she said.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.