FL: Troubled Bus Service for Elderly, Disabled: 3 Firms Recommended

July 29--A selection committee has chosen three companies, with bids totaling $163 million, to help run Palm Beach County's call-ahead bus service for the elderly and disabled.

MV Transportation, First Transit and Maruti Fleet and Management would split the operations of a new Palm Tran Connection bus fleet starting Feb. 1 if county commissioners approve the recommendation in September.

The three companies were chosen Monday from among seven firms that bid to replace Metro Mobility Management Group, which reached a settlement earlier this year to get out of its original five-year, $90 million contract by Jan. 31 because of chronic complaints from riders.

The three new contracts are for seven years each and, unlike Metro Mobility's deal, call for only operating the bus fleet. The county will own the buses and handle dispatching duties, two areas that Metro Mobility handled under a contract that started in June 2012.

Metro Mobility racked up $2.5 million in fines for contract violations and complaints varying from late pickups and two-hour rides to filthy vans and rude drivers. The settlement with the county allows the company to avoid paying any fines.

To help avoid problems that plagued Metro Mobility, county commissioners earlier this year followed a consultant's recommendation to own the buses and handle the dispatch duties while three companies shared the operation and maintenance of the bus fleet.

The county is in the process of purchasing 232 new vehicles for $17.2 million, with the goal of turning over operations to the three new companies by Feb. 1.

"We are all working very hard to meet the deadline. We have all of our efforts focused on meeting that goal,'' assistant county administrator Shannon LaRocque said Tuesday.

MV Transportation, which bid $64.7 million, is the only one of the three proposed operators that has experience with Palm Tran Connection. MV shared the service with Metro Mobility before the county in June 2012 decided to save money by awarding exclusive rights to Metro Mobility.

MV's package includes the north county and western communities. First Transit, which bid $68.2 million, would handle mainly the south county area. Maruti, which bid $29.9 million, will handle other areas including Monday-through-Friday service.

Commissioner Shelley Vana, a vocal critic of the county's handling of the Metro Mobility contract, said she had some concerns about MV Transportation because the company also had problems when it shared the Palm Tran Connection service with Metro Mobility and other companies from 2005-2012.

The county in 2012 chose to go with one provider, Metro Mobility, to save money. But when problems with Metro Mobility started mounting at the end of 2012, Vana said county officials balked at her suggestion to let MV Transportation help.

"It's just ironic that they're the top-rated (company) now,'' said Vana, adding that MV did perform better than Metro Mobility.

"It's probably a baby step in the right direction,'' she said of the committee's recommendations.

County Administrator Bob Weisman, who chaired the selection committee, said in a memo to commissioners that MV Transportation "demonstrated significant experience, qualification and past performance as it related to the provision of paratransit services" compared with the other bidders.

MV officials "gave the committee significant comfort that they understood the issues relative to start up and transition activities'' and the company showed "excellent financial strength,'' Weisman said in his memo.

LaRocque said the new operation will be completely different from the county's former business model, which called for private companies to handle the entire operation with a minimal role by the county.

Terry Brown, a selection committee member, agreed.

"It's a much more expensive proposition for the county, but I think we're going to have a much better paratransit system. I think it's going to work out well,'' Brown said.

Tomas Boiton, who heads a local transportation advocacy group, said he expects service to improve because the three new companies will be paying their employees a living wage of nearly $12 an hour compared with the hourly $8.50 wage Metro Mobility was paying its employees.

"It will be a better working partnership,'' said Boiton, founder of Citizens for Improved Transit.

"Shannon did a great job with the (bid) process. It has come along smoothly.''

Four other companies whose bids were not selected are: Keolis Transit America, National Express Transit Corporation, Transportation America and Veolia Transportation.

Copyright 2014 - The Palm Beach Post, Fla.