Riders: System for paratransit ‘broken,’ worse

WAILUKU – Maui Economic Opportunity’s paratransit system has, again, come under fire for delays in service, said riders at a meeting last week at the nonprofit.

About two dozen riders vehemently complained about waiting for hours to get picked up and dropped off due to a new, but “broken” computer system that was implemented in early November.

“I get 40 to 50 calls a week saying the system doesn’t work,” Kihei resident and rider Robert Douglas said at the meeting Thursday. “We need to ask, ‘What are the needs of the riders,’ because right now, we’re trying to fit to MEO’s schedule.”

The county’s transportation contract for riders with disabilities has about 800 clients and has been under MEO for a little more than five months. Roberts Hawaii had been providing the curb-to-curb service for the last five years.

According to the riders at the meeting, the service was slowly improving but when the new system was installed it was “four times worse.”

“People with disabilities are waiting two to three hours to get picked up,” said Kihei resident Lawrence Booth.

Kahului riders Joseph Frye Jr. and his wife, Roseline, demanded MEO to “throw (the system) out the window” after waiting several hours to and from their appointments.

“I had a dentist appointment at 10 a.m. and had to leave the house at 8:30,” Frye said. “I sat there an hour and a half and the dentist took about 15 minutes. Then I waited another hour to get picked up.

“So you tell me where my health and well-being are put.”

Debbie Cabebe, MEO’s chief programs officer, acknowledged riders’ concerns but said the old computer and paper system could not sustain the continued growth of the service.

“In five years, we’ll have twice as many riders so we could not continue funding the old system,” she said.

Consultants with the Iowa-based Kona Management Group were in attendance Thursday and explained that the new system, based in King of Prussia, Pa, is designed for rural areas and small cities.

Jamie Chambers, director of strategy and analysis with the group, was hired by MEO to help with the paratransit service, which falls under a larger, countywide transportation program called “One Call, One Click.”

The federally funded program calls for the future construction of a call center to handle all transportation-related services – private or public – in the county.

Although the paratransit system makes up only a fraction of transportation on Maui, Chambers said: “It would be a disservice if we didn’t focus on one of the biggest and most vocal groups on Maui.”

Chambers and co-director Jim Work said the new paratransit system calculates routes and times using posted speed limits and distances. They attributed most of the complaints Thursday to the first day of the new system, which was not calibrated to heavy traffic times and other variables.

“We’re building the system as we go,” said Chambers, who noted that her company has no affiliation with the system. “We know this has been difficult, but the more specific information we have the better. We want to fix this so this doesn’t continue for another 30, 40, 50 days.”

Over the last three weeks, the group sat down with drivers and mapped out routes and locations that may take longer during certain times. The team also recognized that call specialists did not properly understand the new system and were giving out wrong appointment times to riders.

Specialists also would confuse addresses and locations and have been retrained to repeat reservations to riders over the phone.

Chambers turned to the riders as well, who have been asking for early reservation times out of fear of missing doctor’s appointments and other important arrangements. Chambers said riders should instead let specialists know what times they can be picked up and the latest they can arrive at their destination.

County officials, including Transportation Director Jo Anne Winer, were in attendance Thursday and remained hopeful that the new system and service can be salvaged.

“I have faith that things will get better,” Winer said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

* This article includes a correction from the original published on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. A new system called Ecolane for Maui Economic Opportunity Inc.’s paratransit service is based in King of Prussia, Pa. The story incorrectly reported where the system is based.