Jan. 28--Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday approved sweeping changes -- with a $17 million price tag-- aimed at improving Palm Tran Connection, the county's beleaguered bus service for the elderly and disabled.
Commissioners didn't like the costly idea of bringing the entire para-transit operation in-house, but they signed off on a series of moves that gives the county more control over a service that has been the source of numerous complaints since 2012.
In the most expensive potential move, commissioners voted 6-1 to instruct staff to pursue the purchase of a fleet of 231 para-transit vehicles -- estimated to cost $15.9 million -- which the county would lease to private companies. Mayor Priscilla Taylor voted no.
Commissioners also voted 7-0 to move the dispatching services in-house, meaning county employees, not a private company, would be in charge of making sure vehicles picked up riders in a timely manner.
That estimated cost, mainly for 21 employees, is $994,000. Under the current model, the county only provides reservation and scheduling service.
The county will try to take over the dispatching services this year. That will require it to negotiate with Metro Mobility Management Group, which has an amended contract to operate Palm Tran Connection until February 2015.
Commissioners also agreed to maintain the current service levels, rejecting cost-saving options that could have stranded thousands of Palm Tran Connection riders by reducing the routes to the bare minimum required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The county has been providing more service than required by the ADA, and by the state Transportation Disadvantaged Fund matching guidelines, to meet the needs of the county's elderly population.
The minimum ADA rules call for para-transit service within 3/4 -mile of the main bus line. The county's core area mainly extends from the Broward County line north to Donald Ross Road and west to Florida's Turnpike.
The state Transportation Disadvantaged Fund provides the county $2.4 million a year in subsidies, with a required 10 percent county match. But the county does more, paying $3.96 million a year.
Commissioners said they had no intention of changing any service levels, though going to the minimum federal and state requirements could save more than $3.6 million a year.
"Nobody up here is looking to cut back on services,'' Commissioner Hal Valeche said. "I think it would be almost unconscionable to cut people out once they have come to rely on your service.''
But commissioners agreed on one potential savings plan, giving ADA riders the option of using the regular Palm Tran bus service for free. It now costs the county $26 for every one-way Palm Tran Connection trip and $5 for every trip on the main bus line.
If just 1 percent of Palm Tran Connection riders used Palm Tran buses, the county could save $229,000 a year.
The measures, which commissioners will continue discussing Feb. 25, make it possible for the county to eventually bring the entire service in-house.
Commissioners didn't seem to embrace that because of the initial cost estimate -- $77.5 million, which includes 416 new employees, 241 vehicles and land for new facilities.
If commissioners did bring the entire Palm Tran Connection service in-house, the county would have the largest public para-transit system in the United States, according to Will Rodman, principal of Nelson Nygaard, a transportation consultant hired by the county for $75,000.
Nelson Nygaard recommended against the move, but the consultants favored the measures approved by the commissioners Tuesday.
Commissioners like the idea of having multiple companies provide the bus service using county-owned vehicles. A survey of 203 transit agencies around the United States found that 73 percent of them owned the vehicles used to provide para-transit service.
Metro Mobility owns all of the vehicles under the current Palm Tran Connection model, which is why the county needs Metro to provide the service until next year.