Dorothy Miller was getting blood drawn and a prescription filled when the white Access bus rolled up to Kaiser Permanente in Garden Grove to take her home.
Miller, 86, who doesn’t drive and uses a walker, is among thousands in Orange County who rely on the Access paratransit program, paying just $5 for round-trip transportation.
“The Access bus has been a blessing to me,” she said after van driver Maria Moser helped her to her seat. “I use it to go shopping, exercise and the doctors.”
But seven months after Oak Brook, Il.-based Veolia Transportation, one of the nation’s largest transportation companies, took over a $30-million-a-year contract to provide paratransit services in Orange County, Veolia is in trouble.
Drivers have been late with pickups and hazy on destinations, sometimes getting there an hour late or longer, prompting numerous complaints from disabled riders who have missed appointments or been left waiting at hospitals, medical centers and shopping plazas.
The Orange County Transportation Authority has fined Veolia $300,000 for failing to meet contract standards.
“The single biggest issue has been buses being excessively late, in addition to problems due to difficulties with scheduling the buses, and drivers having trouble getting to the pickup points,” said Erin Rogers, OCTA manager of transportation services.
In one instance, a blind woman complained about a bus driver who asked her for directions and where to make turns. “Then they couldn’t make her appointment because they were late and she was taken home instead,” said Christie Rudder, an advocate for the disabled with the Dayle McIntosh Center, a Garden Grove agency that helps those with disabilities, which fielded the woman’s complaint.
Arnie Pike, 68, of Placentia, who began using a wheelchair after suffering a stroke 10 years ago, said he recently scheduled a 5:30 p.m. pickup at Cypress College. During a phone call, the dispatcher told him not to worry, that the driver would be there shortly. The bus showed up at 6:45 p.m.
“We think the driver and dispatcher need to be more honest to the people who use this service,” he said.
Veolia is under 90-day review by OCTA, which oversees the program and has hired a consultant to examine Veolia’s paratransit operations and make a recommendation on Veolia’s future to the board in mid-March. Veolia took over from Laidlaw Transportation in July after winning the bid.
The transportation company recently met with OCTA Chairwoman Carolyn Cavecche and pledged to improve its services.
“If Veolia can’t fulfill its obligations, OCTA is willing to make some tough choices,” Cavecche said, adding that Veolia was selected because its bid was $13 million less than the next-lowest bids and that it promised better bus scheduling than its competitors, including Laidlaw.
“As far as I’m concerned, they have not lived up to the contract,” Cavecche said.
OCTA officials could recommend splitting paratransit operations with another company or even rebidding the contract, board members said.
Veolia officials have told the OCTA that they failed to hire enough bus drivers and had problems training them, and experienced scheduling difficulty because of new software.
“I think there were issues that Veolia could have prepared for better, and the preparation also had to do with getting [data] systems working,” said Sharon Crenchaw, Veolia’s project director in Orange County.
In addition, a majority of Access customers live in and travel to the northern part of the county where most of the hospitals, medical clinics and dialysis centers are located, she said. This means paratransit buses travel where traffic is heaviest.
Crenchaw stressed the sheer size of the paratransit operation and the difficulties of managing a program that picks up 4,500 riders daily, and dispatches more than 230 paratransit buses in an urban area with “very heavy traffic patterns.”
“I come from the Washington, D.C., area,” Crenchaw said. “Traffic is heavy there, but here, our drivers encounter very heavy traffic patterns that start to peak around 2 p.m.”
Laidlaw faced heavy traffic as well but generally had a good record for on-time pickups, OCTA officials said.
Crenchaw said Veolia has tried to be innovative, adding taxis during peak hours and installing new software.
Paratransit services under the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority have five contractors administered through a nonprofit agency that oversees service in 41 cities, an MTA spokesman said. Cost is about $83 million a year.
For months, board members in Orange County have heard complaints from the disabled community about the transportation problems. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, transportation must be provided to riders certified as disabled who live farther than three-quarters of a mile of the nearest public bus stop.
To help keep fares low, funding comes from the state, a federal grant, and a portion of the county’s Measure M, a half-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax, an OCTA spokesman said.
Greg Winterbottom, a disabled Villa Park resident who helped found the Dayle McIntosh Center and is now on the OCTA board, has jokingly called Access “OCTA’s expensive taxi service for the handicapped.”
OCTA board members have held long discussions on Veolia’s paratransit operation, some suggesting spending more on taxis or finding an alternative system. Under Veolia, OCTA spends about $24.21 per rider, down from $25.76 a year earlier.
OCTA officials say that in Las Vegas the cost per rider is $35.84, Seattle $25.48, and Washington D.C., $23.32.
Supervisor John M.W. Moorlach, who is on the OCTA board, said the program needed evaluation and suggested the board might consider a hybrid program, such as also having a fleet of taxis and exploring the use of existing dispatch services for buses and taxis.
If Laidlaw is called in, the company is ready, said Irwin Rosenberg, Laidlaw’s vice president for business development.
Laidlaw also had rider complaints about service, he said. But the company’s on-time performance was well above Veolia’s, he said.
“Veolia said that they had people who could come in and perform miracles ... and be more innovative,” Rosenberg said.
“Well, the customers are the ones who are losing on this. They had something that worked, and it doesn’t work now.”