Help Desk: On the road with paratransit: Why the schedules go south

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THE PROBLEM: Tom is late. Behind the wheel, he shakes his head and sighs as he yanks another Marlboro Red out of its pack. "Wanna know why I smoke so much?" he asks me.

It's 5:25 p.m., and we're running almost 40 minutes behind SEPTA's afternoon paratransit schedule. After this drop-off in Media, we'll get to the last pickup 36 minutes late.

Tom knows the customer will be upset, but there's nothing he can do. He's just following his manifest - a full day's schedule of pickups and drop-offs at specific times - over which he has no control.

Tom said he can tell a manifest is illogical or impossible just by looking at it. Most times, he doesn't like what he sees. "New guys are going to try to make this schedule work, and it's not gonna happen," he said. "It just creates stress and accidents."

In July, we wrote about customers who said that CCT Connect, SEPTA's transit service for senior citizens and the disabled, was often late. Afterward, we received responses from several current and former drivers who were adamant that the service's timing issues were due to scheduling problems.

CCT was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in the 1990s over poor service (SEPTA agreed to make changes), and numerous other suits followed. SEPTA recently tried to improve CCT's scheduling by switching to a routing program called Routematch (the previous software had been in use since the mid-'90s).

The program was widely criticized when first installed, but some say the kinks have been worked out. Rod Powell, a member of the SEPTA advisory committee for accessible transportation and an initial critic, said that from what he's heard and seen, routing has improved.

But the drivers we spoke with say there are still significant problems. Tom (not his real name), who left CCT recently, wanted to prove it. On paper, he said, the manifests made sense, but on the road it was a whole different story. So he took us on a simulated paratransit run in his car, using the afternoon half of a manifest from early August.

THE RIDE: Our first drop-off takes us from University City to Upper Darby. The manifest gives us 16 minutes, which could be doable if not for all the traffic. At 1:30 p.m., University City is very congested. It takes us 23 minutes to drop off our first "passenger." The seven-minute difference doesn't seem like much, Tom said, but every minute counts. If you're already late for your first drop-off, you don't stand a very good chance of being on time for the others.

Midway through the run, we're about 30 minutes behind, and we have to get four people at a community center. Since we're not really picking anyone up, we can be stingy with loading times.

We allot just one minute for passengers who can walk and three to four minutes for passengers in wheelchairs. But Tom explains that loading time can be anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes, depending on whether a passenger is ready, or in a wheelchair.

On our way to Lansdowne, we get stuck behind a trolley. The crawling stop-and-go pace is nightmarish, making it impossible to get to our destination on time. Tom finally passes the trolley, but observes that there's no way he could do this in a paratransit van with passengers.

And we're still almost 40 minutes behind.

Tom is most frustrated by the lack of driver control over manifests. He used to work as a driver in a different state, and there, he said, drivers gave feedback about their manifests. When he tried to speak up about SEPTA's, he said, most dispatchers refused to change his routes.

THE RESPONSE: Jim Foley, chief officer of CCT Connect, said SEPTA encourages feedback. It meets monthly with the contractors who run CCT in each county to discuss problems. For example, last month, Foley met with Chester County's carrier to work out scheduling problems, he said.

As for the manifests, Routematch executive vice president Tim Quinn said the program does account for traffic, but CCT is installing a GPS feature that will collect data and help the program pick better routes. Routematch can account for loading times, too, but the user (in this case, CCT) determines how much time to allot. Foley couldn't tell us when we spoke how long CCT now allows for loading. All in all, Foley said, "we're not completely satisfied" with scheduling. "We're still working out the bugs."

Paratransit doesn't keep stats on driver lateness, and our test run was just one afternoon, so we'd be interested in hearing from other paratransit passengers and drivers. For Tom, however, the verdict is in - he's looking for a new job. He wasn't happy not being able to do his well.

"It comes down to having the time to deliver the service that these people expect," he said. CCT Connect, in his view, just wasn't giving him that time.

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