The city of Winston-Salem is undertaking an overhaul of its transit service for disabled riders, including investment in new buses and additional drivers, along with a possible fare hike, in response to a federal review that found multiple violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The door of Tonya Wilson’s modest-sized ranch house on Windy Hill Drive on the northeastern outskirts of Winston-Salem was cracked open on a recent Friday afternoon so she could hear the paratransit bus when it arrived.
Winston-Salem Transit Authority’s paratransit service, known as Trans-AID, is required to arrive within 15 minutes either before or after the scheduled pick-up time, thanks to an extensive compliance review issued by the Federal Transit Administration in February. The review found 16 violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including faulting WSTA’s 40-minute pickup window.
“FTA considers pickup windows longer than 30 minutes in total to be excessive, because they require riders to wait an unreasonably long time for service,” the review said.
Wilson, who became visually impaired nearly two decades ago because of complications from Type 1 diabetes, had requested a pickup at 2 p.m. to visit Hanes Mall. The bus arrived at 1:47, so Wilson locked her door and set out across the yard towards the bus parked at the curb. Stepping onto the bus, she paid her 50-cent fare. After a pleasant exchange of greetings, the driver informed Wilson that they would be heading to Kernersville to pick up another passenger who was going to the mall.
“Is that an add-on?” Wilson asked.
“No, she was scheduled,” the driver replied. Wilson took the news in stride. Even with the detour to the eastern end of the county, the bus deposited the passengers at the food court entrance of the mall a hour and seven minutes after Wilson’s pickup. She estimated that a ride on the fixed-route bus system would take about an hour.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires any public agency that operates a fixed-route transportation system for the general public to also maintain a complementary paratransit system for people who are unable because of a disability to use the fixed-route system. The Federal Transit Administration is responsible for ensuring compliance with the law.
Among the most significant deficiencies uncovered through an eight-month review, a team of federal investigators found that Trans-AID riders experience a substantial number of untimely pickups, the transit agency does not have enough telephone capacity to answer calls promptly during service hours, and the city of Winston-Salem does not have adequate requirements in place for monitoring service to ensure that the service is in compliance with federal law.
The report attributed the problem of untimely pickups to an aging fleet, with all but eight of the agency’s 33 short buses logging upwards of 200,000 miles. When federal investigators visited last August, they found only 20 vehicles in operation — five short of the 25 typically needed each day.
“If it’s a 10:30 appointment, I tell them it’s 10:15,” Wilson said. “I despise being late. It makes my blood pressure boil.” A couple weeks ago Wilson said she almost missed a doctor’s appointment to have some lab work done because her driver was forced to juggle too many rides.
“Many doctor’s offices will allow you to be five, 10, 15 minutes late,” Wilson said, “but it depends on how slammed they are.”
While riders contend with the stress of making appointments on time, if they fail to show up for a scheduled ride or cancel at the door, they can be temporarily suspended. In February, the Federal Transit Administration ordered WSTA to “immediately cease all suspensions under its existing no-show policy and reinstate service to those under suspension.” The feds also ordered the local transit agency to come up with a new policy that takes into consideration the frequency of the rider’s use of the system, excuse cancellations that are beyond the rider’s control, and ensure its data is accurately compiled.
Earlier this month, while acknowledging the deficiencies identified by the federal government, local transportation officials gave a favorable report on the paratransit system to members of the public works committee of Winston-Salem City Council, which is chaired by Councilman Dan Besse.
Robert Garcia, chairman of WSTA’s board of directors, expressed confidence in staff, including General Manager Art Barnes. “They have our full support, and I want to let everyone know that when items of this nature come to our our board, which are quite frequent — public comment, public concern — we take them very, very seriously on the board,” he said. “We address them with Mr. Barnes and with the staff, and I have to say that they are very attentive, and nothing gets put on the backburner.”
Transportation Director Toneq’ McCullough said the number of trips provided by Trans-AID has increased significantly since 2011 relative to the budget for the program.
“If you asked a Fortune 500 company, that would be a true envy to them to have that much productivity,” she said, adding that city council faces a choice between increasing funding for the program, controlling growth, or a combination of the two.
Trans-AID compares favorably on affordability to its counterparts across the state, according to a staff presentation. With a fare of 50 cents, Winston-Salem’s system is the cheapest in North Carolina, while Wilmington’s $4 fare comes in at the highest. Greensboro’s SCAT service charges $1.50. And Trans-AID waives the fee for riders who are on Medicaid. In an interview on Monday, Barnes estimated that more than 90 percent of riders don’t pay the fare.
McCullough described Trans-AID as “basically a free service for most of your riders” during the public works committee meeting earlier this month.
“Because it’s free and because the population that we serve — we have a lot of our aging community who are now qualified for Medicaid also, then there’s no deterrent for using the service for the trips that you don’t truly need,” she said. “And when you look at the cost of Trans-AID as compared to fixed route, I think it’s around $5 for fixed route and $20 for Trans-AID, it’s a huge cost comparison, so there has to be some measures to consider to deter some of the riders.”
Claire Stone — an advocate who advises Community Advocates for Transportation Services, or CATS, in Winston-Salem, along with similar rider groups in Greensboro and High Point — took umbrage at the discussion in the committee meeting.
“Don’t sit in a group of legislators and talk about how to get people to ride less,” she said. “It’s illegal and it’s immoral. You can think it, but you can’t say it.”
Stone said multiple complaints about violations that went unaddressed by WSTA led to the federal review.
“I couldn’t write to the FTA today with any valid complaint about [Greensboro Transit Authority],” she said. “They’re in compliance; WSTA’s not. If [Greensboro starts] slipping, we’ll hit them with complaints, too.”
To address excessive trip times, WSTA has committed to hiring additional drivers, buying new vehicles and implementing a mobile data terminal, replacing the written manifests currently used by drivers.
Barnes said WSTA has budgeted for eight new buses, with the federal government picking up 80 percent of the cost. The local agency has also budgeted for six or seven new drivers, a customer service representative and a certification specialist. WSTA is proposing eight new positions, including six drivers, a Americans with Disabilities Act certification specialist and a customer service representative, at an estimated cost of $326,658. The expenditures must be approved as part of the city’s budget process.
WSTA has already signed a contract with a vendor for the mobile data terminal, Barnes said, adding that the new system could be up and running in six months.
“It gives real-time information for the dispatcher and the driver,” he said. “The dispatcher will be able to tell the location of each vehicle by looking at their display on the desktop. It will provide a means of accurate data with respect to our online performance, abbreviated communications to drivers instead of verbal communications. You can play back any travel via vehicle — you can go back to any part of the day and see where they are. The driver will be able to see updates to their manifest so they can adjust more quickly.”
Council members’ discussion focused almost exclusively on the cost of operating the system, as opposed to the violations identified by the Federal Transit Administration.
“It’s clear that we need to consider an overhaul of our Trans-AID system,” Besse said. “We have an unsustainable growth rate in demand. We need additional information. We need to make use of our rider community’s input. We need to make use of our board of directors, and your time and expertise to help advise us on this. It’s clearly a consensus of this committee that we want to undertake a process of a systematic evaluation of everything, from what services are provided to whom in what geographic area, what participation in cost [we expect] from riders, and how we translate that into the best quality service.”
Trips on the Trans-AID bus rarely go exactly as planned, with drivers listening intently to a nearly constant stream of chatter on their radios, looking for an opening to relay some vital piece of information to the dispatcher and waiting in turn for instructions.
When Tonya Wilson boarded the Trans-AID bus at 3:45 p.m. to return home from Hanes Mall, the driver informed her that he had to pick up some people at Industries For the Blind. Yet the bus motored past the facility, and continued on to a residential neighborhood near North Forsyth High School to drop off another rider at her home. Despite Wilson’s home being only seven minutes away, the driver doubled back to Industries For the Blind, explaining, “We’re doing some shuffling around.”
The bus arrived at Industries For the Blind and waited for six minutes before the driver radioed back to headquarters to find out the status of the pickup. He had canceled. The dispatcher instructed the driver to go to a different location to make a new pickup, and then return to Industries For the Blind at 5:15.
“I still have Tonya Wilson,” the driver reminded the dispatcher.
“We have to follow our lineup, so they know everything is covered,” he explained to his passenger, after receiving permission to take her home. “This guy I went to pick up, he canceled. He either canceled or got on a different bus. I didn’t hear his name when they called out the cancelations.”