With only two public meetings held in the South Bay and one day remaining for public comment, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials will close the comment period for changes people would like to see in paratransit services on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
The public-comment meetings were held Aug. 8 in San Jose and Aug. 9 in Campbell. No meetings are scheduled for north county cities, including Palo Alto, VTA officials said.
The meetings on a new paratransit contract come on the heels of a decision by the agency to cancel its contract with Outreach & Escort, Inc. The meetings did not address policy decisions such as reducing or expanding service areas, but focused on services that a new operator might provide.
Policy decisions would be part of the NextNetwork, a systemwide restructuring of the bus and light rail that is currently under consideration. But some paratransit riders in Campbell signaled they would remain vigilant when it comes to any proposed cuts to services or raised fares. The riders wanted to know whom to contact and how to reach board members who will make those decisions, they said.
The status of VTA bus lines and light rail are of particular concern to persons who rely on paratransit services. Paratransit is linked to "fixed" bus or light rail lines. If a line is eliminated it is likely the paratransit service could be eliminated for patrons who accessed services near those fixed lines, said Aaron Vogel, VTA regional transportation services manager.
That loss could potentially affect Palo Alto paratransit users. At a community meeting for the NextNetwork in May, VTA officials unveiled preliminary concepts that could eliminate some or all of Palo Alto's fixed-route, intra-city bus lines (the 88, 89 and 35). That could also mean a potential loss of paratransit services along those routes.
But the VTA Board of Directors could elect to change its policy, Vogel said, and that isn't unprecedented. Under Federal Transit Administration rules paratransit services must be offered within three quarters of a mile of a fixed route. VTA offers paratransit service one mile past that three-quarter-mile requirement as a premium service, he said.
Those at the Campbell meeting said if a fixed route is dropped, paratransit services along that route should still be available.
Arthur Keller, a former Palo Alto planning and transportation commissioner and candidate running for Palo Alto City Council this November, went one step further in an Aug. 3 email to city planning and transportation officials.
VTA should provide paratransit service to routes served by the Palo Alto Shuttle, Stanford Marguerite and Mountain View Community Shuttle, he said. Those lines are not served by paratransit; they aren't operated by VTA.
Paratransit users at the meeting made it clear that VTA should plan for the wave of aging residents and ensure adequate funding in proportion to increasing populations of seniors and disabled persons. They don't want fewer connections, but more, they said.
Riders want to travel further distances and have more evening service, enabling them to go out to dinner or to concerts. Others wanted seamless transitions between cities and towns in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. And they want extended service on days when buses don't serve locations, such as on holidays. Riders want VTA to expand scheduling out to 14 days in advance rather than three. The new service provider should also confirm no-shows and reduce the pick-up window from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, they said.
Inconsistent service was also a recurring theme at Tuesday's meeting. Jimmy Duarte, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said he's had first-hand experience with paratransit not picking him up.
"Outreach failed to come and left me sitting for two hours. I called VTA and they came and bailed me out," he said.
But riders said that modern technology could help iron out the glitches. They want seamless integration with laptops, tablets and smartphones to receive alerts, updates on estimated times of arrival and to book rides.
The system also needs better communication between drivers and dispatchers, who sometimes don't know a destination, they said. If someone is going to the shopping mall, a driver should know the location of the Macy's where the client wants to go, not drop the person somewhere across the mall. Having the ability for riders to send an electronic map to the dispatcher or the driver would save everyone time and inconvenience, they said. Others said there should be a dedicated telephone number a client can call for emergencies or critical callbacks to the location if the person was dropped off at the wrong place or has a medical issue.
Paratransit also has a subscription service, where people who go to the same location regularly won't have to call each time to book an appointment. But some riders have been turned away, and the service should be expanded, those at the meeting said.
The riders also like many things about existing paratransit services, including door-to-door services; having a variety of vehicles from small vans to large ones; the current paratransit coverage; and especially the drivers, who are friendly and courteous, they said. Vogel said that many of the drivers would transfer to the new operator.
Outreach held the contract with VTA for 23 years. The VTA board voted in June to exercise a one-year notice of contract cancellation provision while simultaneously starting a competitive bid process for paratransit services to ensure uninterrupted service. An auditor's report found pervasive failures in data gathering and "murky" invoicing by Outreach. Paratransit services are one of VTA's largest contracts, amounting to about $20 million budgeted for fiscal year 2016, according to an auditor's staff report.
Vogel said that VTA limited the public-outreach meetings to two because of the narrow window to find a new service provider. The request for proposals is expected to go out in September. VTA sent out more than 10,000 notices in four languages to riders in its top 50 destination locations, including automated calls to visually impaired individuals, he said.
Public comments, which will be analyzed and could be incorporated into the request for proposals, end tomorrow, Aug. 10. Anyone wanting to comment can call 408-321-2300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read the auditor's report on paratransit services click here and go to pages 22-40.