After about a month and a half of providing paratransit services, Maui Economic Opportunity looks to have everyone on "the same page" wanting to "make things better," said one rider who uses the service.
Last week, officials from MEO and Maui County's Department of Transportation met with Kihei rider and advocate Robert Douglas to bolster communication among the groups.
"One thing we pointed out was that each has a responsibility," Douglas said. "MEO, the county and even we as riders have a responsibility to make our appointments and cancel them if we can't make it. If (riders) are late for a scheduling, they automatically slow the service down.
"MEO, from what I have seen, has certainly less complaints (than before)," he said.
When the county's transportation contract for riders with disabilities switched from Roberts Hawaii to MEO in July, the nonprofit was criticized for having delays in service and drivers who appeared unaccustomed to routes. Transportation Director Jo Anne Winer, who was inundated with calls and emails from riders during the period, said Tuesday "things are really improving."
"MEO was very receptive and wanted to offer whatever assistance they could," she said. "I think whatever issues they've had, they are being resolved.
"I was very glad that (Douglas) was willing to keep (paratransit) services up to the riders' expectations and to make sure both MEO and our department know what we can do to make things better," she said.
One of the original issues MEO faced was a shortage of drivers, due to legal appeals by Roberts. Roberts Hawaii drivers were reluctant to switch to Maui Economic Opportunity Inc.'s paratransit service because of a legal battle regarding Maui County's contract with MEO for the bus service. The nonprofit reportedly had fewer than 20 drivers servicing more than 715 clients.
"We've hired more drivers, which was a concern before," MEO Chief Executive Officer Lyn McNeff said. "Currently, we have 24 drivers . . . and another in training."
Along with the increased number of drivers, McNeff also said the paratransit provider is looking to overhaul its scheduling system with "real-time software" that is "tailored to Maui roads" and company bus sizes.
Winer said she believes that "any kind of technology that is more user-friendly" would be a benefit to the service.
"I think sometimes you have certain limitations with software, and I know that MEO is trying to improve it," she said. "Working smarter and not harder helps accuracy and safety of pick ups and drop-offs, which is a primary concern for us and MEO.
"I think the theory of how all this should work is much more complicated than people, like myself, would like to think," she said.
Douglas, who was one of the first riders to speak out against MEO, said the service has seen improvement and has been "pretty well on-time" with its routes. However, he still wants to see more convenient pick-up and drop-off locations at Costco and the Maui Mall.
Those locations for pick-ups and drop-offs have been set up at Costco, but not yet at the Maui Mall, he said.
"The only one (at the mall) is between Whole Foods and Longs," he said. "As most of our riders are disabled, . . . that's a long way to go if you want to go to Subway" or the county Division of Motor Vehicles and Licensing.
Douglas said he hopes to see additional drop-off and pick-up points near Maui Mall's Dragon Dragon restaurant and the county office for driver's licenses and registration renewals.
Despite the improvements in service, Makawao resident Lyna Eliysares said she is "too scared to ride the bus again," because of her experience with the service last month.
The disabled 79-year-old, who had used the service as her primary means of transportation, said she had to wait nearly two hours outside Pukalani Superette after getting groceries last month.
"I told them I didn't want to be there that long so I stood out there in the wind, waiting and waiting, until I finally started asking people to take me home," she said. "There was no place to sit, and I was really, really upset so I never got back on the bus again."
Eliysares said she has since sought help from Women Helping Women, which has helped with her transportation needs.
"They took me to the movies yesterday because it was my birthday," she said.
Another disabled rider, Joan Bonner, 57, of Waiehu Terrace expressed similar concern, saying the service is "very frustrating and unreliable right now."
The retired critical care nurse suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder and also uses the service as her only means of transportation.
"With Roberts . . . at most I waited 10 to 15 minutes and never had to cancel an appointment," she said, noting that she has had to cancel numerous doctor's appointments in the last month, due to MEO's service.
"I sincerely believe, though, that MEO will return to that level of service," Bonner said. "They've told me that in one month they'll have everything together and I trust what they've told me.
"I'm willing to be patient and willing to pay that $30 a month (for the service) because it's worth it," she said.
As informal speaker for the riders, Douglas said he is confident that MEO can find success in the near future.
"Paratransit is far too important for people on Maui," he said. "Like I said before, 'It's not a luxury - it's a lifeline.' "
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at email@example.com.