Hundreds of disabled Maui residents are finding their "lifeline to the outside world" in "serious jeopardy" due to a recent switch in paratransit service providers, according to a Kihei resident who uses the service.
On July 1, the county's transportation contract for riders with disabilities switched from Roberts Hawaii to Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., which has caught the ire of some riders who complain of delays in service and drivers who appear unaccustomed to routes and dealing with people with disabilities.
"This is an issue that may seem trivial on the surface, but it's anything but," said Kihei resident Robert Douglas, a paratransit rider, on Monday. "It's been a disaster and lives are at risk."
Douglas, 77, has been legally blind since his 30s and uses the service as his primary means of transportation, which includes visits to his doctor and to the pharmacy.
"Paratransit for many disabled people is their lifeline. . . . It's not a convenience," he said in a phone interview. "If you have a doctor's appointment at 12:30 p.m. and the driver doesn't get there until 1 p.m., if that medication is very serious, doesn't that put your life at risk?
"You can have all the doctors and nurses in the world, but if you can't get there it won't do you any good."
Lyn McNeff, chief executive officer of MEO, understands some of the concerns that riders are having and said that MEO is in a "transition period."
"It's a new program for us," she said, noting that the nonprofit organization acquired 27 paratransit buses and vehicles from Roberts Hawaii to service clients. "If you get the vehicles on the first (of July), then it's going to take some time to iron out."
County Transportation Director Jo Anne Winer said that the program has more than 715 clients on the island and that her office has received numerous calls and complaints from them.
"Probably several hundreds," she said of the phone calls. "Sometimes, we can't even pick them up, and that doesn't count all the emails we've gotten.
"We take everyone's issue seriously, and we make our best attempts to respond as quickly as we can."
The paratransit contract was one of three awarded by the county in February. A panel of transportation experts reviewed bids and made the decision, Winer said.
"(The judges) based it on a scoring sheet that looked at costs, operational representations and documents provided," Winer said. "They went through it and justified all their scorings."
Roberts Hawaii won the commuter and fixed-route services for the Maui Bus, but MEO was awarded the five-year $2.5 million contract for paratransit bus services.
MEO won the contract from Roberts Hawaii, which had been providing the service for the last five years. It is a curb-to-curb service for people with disabilities.
To be eligible for the paratransit service, riders must live within three-quarters of a mile of a Maui Bus route and submit an application to the county Transportation Department with a doctor's certification that they are unable to walk to the nearest bus stop.
The service is offered daily, but riders have to reserve pickup times in advance with MEO.
"It's 700 new clients, so it's been a little hard to plan for," McNeff said. "We knew the names, but not the schedules and everything."
Douglas, who served as chairman of the county's Commission on Persons with Disabilities for five years, claimed that MEO was in "no place ready to fulfill the contract" and that there were not enough qualified drivers.
"Last week, I rode this service three times and these drivers don't know where to drop you off or pick you up," he said. "I damn near got hit by a car last Friday.
"When this paratransit was run by Roberts it was run very well, and I understand that you have to cut costs, but when you issue a contract solely on money without considering people involved - that's wrong."
McNeff and Winer explained that MEO drivers go through 40 hours of training on rules and regulations before they are hired. By Federal Transit Administration guidelines, all paratransit drivers are required to know how to board and secure passengers with disabilities, particularly those in wheelchairs.
"We have a lot of experience in human services and serve more than 3,000 clients in our human services program," McNeff said, adding that MEO offers priority transportation for dialysis patients. "It's just a transition period, and I know that some people get attached to drivers, and I understand that change for a lot of people can be hard.
"But we are very much for serving people with disabilities."
Winer said that she expected issues to arise within the first 30 days.
"The advantage Roberts had was their ridership increased gradually so this system grew under them, and they were able to accommodate the riders, as well as their needs, and they knew where all the locations were. That is something you don't get in one big move."
Although MEO was awarded the contract about five months ago, appeals by Roberts Hawaii caused delays in preparing for the change, Winer said. She said that the list of clients and locations was not delivered until a few months ago.
"We have to assume that things are not going to go exactly as planned, but I understand that the riders expect and deserve a certain level of service," she said. "Ultimately, we have to ensure the safety of our passengers, so the buck stops at our door, my door specifically. I have to make sure we're doing everything possible to meet the requirements and needs of our passengers because the last thing we want to have is a black mark on what has been a really valuable service."
Douglas, who has worked with people with disabilities for more than 40 years in Georgia, Illinois and Hawaii, said that it is difficult getting groceries and doing daily activities when you do not have a reliable transportation service.
"When you lose your mobility for the rest of your life, your schedule is no longer your own," he said. "And that takes some getting used to.
"I used to race stock cars at 14, and when my vision deteriorated I went into drag racing because all you had to do was drive straight. I had my racing license, my pilots license and my drivers license taken away, so I thought what the hell is left. But there is a lot left, we just all need a little help from time to time."
MEO and the county's Transportation Department will meet Thursday to formalize a plan to deal with the riders' concerns.
"We're working on it diligently," McNeff said. "We're known for customer service, and we want to continue to be known for that."
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.