FL: Palm Tran Connection Service Cuts Avoided

Jan. 29--Palm Beach County won't cut back its door-to-door busing service for the disabled and elderly, but will offer free rides for those willing to walk to a bus stop, county commissioners decided Tuesday.

The county is in the midst of revamping operations at the troubled Palm Tran Connection, where riders during the past year have complained about delays, filthy buses and other service problems.

On Tuesday, county commissioners opted for the county to pursue taking over more of the outsourced-bus service's operations as they look for new contractors to primarily provide drivers and fleet maintenance.

Also, to try to lessen the Palm Tran Connection passenger load, commissioners agreed to let riders who are able to walk to bus stops to instead ride the regular Palm Tran buses for free.

"I'm not for cutting any services," County Commissioner Jess Santamaria said. "We will maintain good service from here on."

Offering Palm Tran Connection riders to travel fare-free on regular Palm Tran buses that pick up at bus stops ends up saving the county about $21 per trip, according to county projections.

While free rides on other buses sounds good, it doesn't help elderly and disabled riders who can't walk to a bus stop, said Vivian D'Angio, a Connection rider and Palm Tran Service Board member. She said her neighborhood doesn't have sidewalks.

"Much of Palm Beach County is not pedestrian friendly," D'Angio said. "Also you are looking at intense heat and rainfall."

Palm Tran Connection is a door-to-door, call-ahead transit service that serves disabled and elderly riders. It's paid for with a mix of county tax dollars as well as state and federal funding, enabling some of the county's most at-need riders get to doctor's appointments, work, the grocery store and other vital destinations. Riders pay $3.50 for a one-way trip.

Providing Palm Tran Connection already costs about $27 million a year to serve about 13,050 riders. And county officials expect the cost to increase when they try to find new companies to operate the troubled public transit system.

Yet commissioners are counting on outsourcing Palm Tran Connection personnel still being less costly than the county taking over all operations.

It could cost about $34 million a year for the county take over all Palm Tran Connection operations, including paying 416 new employees, according to county projects. That's in addition to a more than $43 million investment in new vehicles, facilities and equipment needed to take over Palm Tran Connection.

Going back to the past practice of contracting with more than one company to provide Palm Tran Connection rides should resolve service problems, without requiring a complete county takeover, Commissioners Steven Abrams said.

"Outsourcing wasn't the problem," Abrams said.

The county in 2012 tried to save money by making Metro Mobility Management Group the primary operator of Palm Tran Connection, instead of the past practice of using more than one company to serve the largest county in Florida by area.

But after Metro Mobility took over operations in August 2012, riders started complaining about late buses, accidents, dirty buses, maintenance backlogs and other service problems.

Earlier this month, the County Commission approved a settlement deal to part ways with Metro Mobility by January 2015. The deal allows Metro Mobility to avoid $2.4 million in fines for poor performance in exchange for leaving midway through a 5-year, $90 million contract. Metro Mobility also agrees to keep the busing program running while the county finds a new operator.

Commissioner on Tuesday called for the county to take over dispatch duties to help correct service problems. That's expected to cost about $1 million a year.

Commissioners also called for exploring the county buying the fleet of smaller buses used to transport Palm Tran Connection riders, which would still be operated by privately contracted drivers.

The idea is that having ownership of the vehicles would enable the county to more easily reallocate them to different operating companies if problems arise again.

The county projects it would cost nearly $16 million to buy the 231 vehicles, which would then be operated and maintained by contractors.

In addition, commissioners called for considering a taxi voucher program that could allow riders to get a subsidized taxi ride for short trips, instead of booking a ride on Palm Tran Connection.

If the county opts to continue outsourcing Palm Tran Connection, the county should require companies to pay its drivers more, said Commissioner Shelley Vana. She blames low wages for high-driver turnover that contributed to Palm Tran Connection service problems.

"This board should stand up for a living wage," Vana said.

The commission in a 4-3 vote balked at Vana's effort Tuesday to lock in a base wage requirement for Palm Tran Connection drivers, but agreed to revisit the proposal before putting the contract out to bid.

Commissioner Hal Valeche said while commissioners don't want to cut back on Palm Tran Connection services, they still have a responsibility to find the best deal for taxpayers.

"I'm not ashamed in any way to get the lowest price that we can," Valeche said.

abreid@tribune.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews

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