SEPTA transportation for seniors and disabled still not working for many

The Alliance of Community Service Providers is a group of about 90 organizations that serve disabled adults; a big focus is public transportation.

HERE WE ARE again, SEPTA.

In February, I wrote about customers who were unsatisfied with SEPTA's Customized Community Transport, which provides rides to elderly and disabled residents.

Their complaints, which included late pickups and drops-offs, scheduling mix-ups, and long holds for the dispatch center, could have filled a book - a book that could have helped them pass the time while they waited for their rides.

Joking. Joking!

But here's something that's no joke: Unreliable service endangers riders who have physical and intellectual challenges.

I recently met with the Alliance of Community Service Providers, a group of about 90 organizations that serve disabled adults in the area, to discuss their frustrations and fears.

Like the riders I talked to eight months ago, the providers had a long list of concerns that went way beyond mere inconvenience.

Consider this story shared by Telisha Feamster and Katie Finn from Divine Providence Village:

In January, a mostly nonverbal autistic client was traveling from Delaware County to her day program in Willow Grove. The woman was supposed to transfer from one CCT van to another at Cheltenham and Ogontz, but when the first driver got there, he let her out even though the second van was not there to pick her up. Confused and afraid, the woman boarded a bus to Broad and Erie.

Meanwhile, the day program called Divine Providence Village to say she hadn't made it. Workers at Divine panicked, called police, and started searching for her.

Four hours later, workers from Divine got another call. The woman had approached a police officer who looked like her father, a former cop, for help. The officer called CCT.

Divine workers rushed the woman to the hospital to make sure she was OK, since she couldn't tell them herself. Thankfully, she was fine. Workers said CCT apologized, but not in writing.

As you can imagine, SEPTA's version is a little different: It had no record indicating the woman could not be left alone to wait. It contacted the day program and the woman's caretaker about 13 minutes after the second van arrived and didn't see her. The first driver had gotten lost and arrived at the transfer spot after the second van had been there and left.

"I just remember thinking, 'Thank God,' " Feamster said. "Can you imagine her wandering around? Can you imagine what could have happened to her?"

Here's what I don't have to imagine: Too often, systems don't get fixed until something bad happens. And too many of these vulnerable riders are being put in a position where that is not only possible, but also inevitable.

For more than an hour, providers shared stories about clients left unsupervised in front of businesses that hadn't opened yet or dropped off at home before the agreed-upon time, leaving them at risk of wandering off or being taken advantage of.

SEPTA acknowledged there are some problems, and it is working to improve them. Officials met with alliance members and are collaborating on ideas to enhance the system.

Excellent. But in February and again this week, I got a "customers just don't understand our system" vibe from them.

No doubt it's a huge operation with a lot of moving parts - 7,500 rides on any given weekday between its ADA paratransit service and its shared-ride program. Clients have to make appointments at least a day in advance. Flexibility helps. SEPTA tries to book customers within two hours of their requested times, but during peak hours, that can be tough. Definitely, a Zen-like attitude helps; rides can be scheduled to arrive at the customer's pickup location 10 minutes before and up to 20 minutes after the scheduled time.

But the riders I've talked to all seem to understand the system just fine. You know why? Because their health (doctors' appointments) depends on it. Because their livelihood (jobs) depends on it, and because their quality of life (training programs) depends on a service that clearly needs improvement.

And things are only going to get worse if they're not fixed by 2019, when a federal mandate moves many of the alliance's clients into mainstream jobs that may not be as flexible as some of the programs they work for now.

For all their complaints, the providers just want a more reliable system that is vital to their clients' success - and theirs.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced a resolution authorizing Council's committee on transportation and public utilities to hold hearings about CCT.

The sooner the better to air out some of these issues in public. Or, I suspect, I'll be back here eight months from now sharing more of these stories, or worse.

ubinas@phillynews.com @NotesFromHel