Consultant to review SEPTA paratransit services

For some people in wheelchairs, with developmental disabilities, for the blind and elderly, the only route to using public transportation is SEPTA's Customized Community Transportation, and, according to those riders, that frequently is not a good experience.

Those riders, people who provide service for the disabled, and the SEPTA workers who oversee the paratransit service all provided testimony Monday to Philadelphia City Council's Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities. The riders told stories of long waits, being diverted far out of their way because of miscommunication or to pick up other passengers, and having their lives dictated by the transit service, rather than its being a tool available to them.

"The fact is this is an outdated system," said Liam Dougherty, who has the neuromuscular disorder Friedreich's ataxia and uses a wheelchair. "It has to be changed. Something has to be changed."

SEPTA officials said during the hearing that they were looking into just that possibility. Representatives met Friday with a consultant who will review the current paratransit system and recommend changes. The agency did not say when the review would take place or the results released.

Councilman David Oh asked whether it would be possible to contract with a private company with wheelchair-accessible vehicles, such as Uber or Freedom Cab. SEPTA officials said that would not be as easy as it might sound. Federal regulations, they said, require full accessibility, and Uber, for example, requires that users have a smartphone and a credit or debit card. Not everyone has those, SEPTA officials said. SEPTA's service is currently provided by three contractors, Edens Corp., MV Transit, and First Transit, through contracts valued at $75 million to $80 million. The service transports an average of 3,695 riders a day.

The current CCT system is designed to mirror public transportation, but is far from the convenience that able-bodied people experience when they walk to the nearest subway stop. SEPTA offers door-to-door service, but reservations must be made one to three days in advance. Users must agree to an arrival time within a two-hour window, an hour before and an hour after the time they request. SEPTA said it improved service by expanding the fleet to 457 vehicles, cracking down on orders for riders that went unused, and changing contracting to alleviate labor shortages. On-time performance went from 77 percent during the summer to 83 percent as of this week.

But problems persist. Speakers at the hearing talked about disabled people being abandoned in frigid weather because the lack of precise scheduling resulted in the person arriving at a day care center, for example, long before any staff were available to care for them. People also were forced to leave these care facilities early to meet CCT scheduling demands.

"Up and down the line, SEPTA is failing," said Graham Gill, executive director of Programs Employing People, an assistance program for the disabled. "It is failing our business, but more important, it is failing our community."

SEPTA countered that too many people rely on its CCT service as a medical-care service, whereas its mandate is simply to provide a mirror to transit lines for people who cannot use them. Cassandra Smith, who works to ensure SEPTA's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, recounted a story of a passenger who was left on a paratransit vehicle for nearly seven hours, without food, bathroom, or medicine, because a caregiver was not home when the CCT ride arrived.

City Council's ability to change the situation may be limited. The city provides almost all the local subsidy for SEPTA's City Transit division, about $65 million. But city government, while represented on the authority's board, has no direct control over SEPTA.