Ubiñas: It's Groundhog Day for SEPTA's paratransit services

John Cinque, right, and his son, Jimmy, pose at Johnny's Auto Repair in Philadelphia earlier this month.

Here we are again . . .

That’s how I started a column last year about SEPTA’s unreliable transportation service for seniors and people with disabilities

And here I am starting another the same way.  

It seemed fitting that most of my recent conversations about SEPTA’s Customized Community Transportation were had on Groundhog Day.

Just like in that classic Bill Murray film, I found myself in a time loop, hearing the same complaints I’ve long heard from customers who depend on the undependable service, the same vague promises of improvement to a system that never quite gets it right. 

Different day, same issues with an inflexible system that demands flexibility of its most vulnerable riders.

Rides that must be made one to three days in advance, and with a two-hour arrival window to almost ensure you’re getting nothing else done that day.

Late pickups and drop-offs.

Scheduling mix-ups.

Long holds for the dispatch center.

Riders stuck out in the cold or at home or at work or at doctor’s offices, sometimes long after staff had gone home for the day.

This time, at least, the complaints were also shared at a hearing before Philadelphia City Council's Committee on Transportation and Public Utilities.

Among those who testified was John Cinque, whose son, Jimmy, has to depend on the undependable service.

“CCT cannot be counted on,” Cinque said flatly when I reached him after the hearing.

“Aside from the extraordinarily late transportation, an immensely disconcerting element here is the frequency with which these issues were transpiring. How can an individual hope to rely on a service when that service so routinely fails to meet their needs?” the Bustleton-area resident told Council members. “Additionally, the lack of accountability when the service fails to operate at a sufficient level is worrisome, to say the least.”

Cinque joins me in the CCT time loop, which is good because it can get lonely in here, especially if you’re waiting for a ride.

Like many others, Cinque has numerous examples of his son being picked up late, taken miles and hours out of his way, and twice being mistaken for another Jimmy and dropped off at the wrong home.

Thankfully, Jimmy, 29, who has a developmental disability but is high-functioning, called his father to help straighten things out.

But imagine what could have happened if he wasn’t able to fend for himself?

Oh, my bad, you don’t have to imagine.

In last year’s column, I wrote about a mostly nonverbal autistic woman who was supposed to transfer from one CCT van to another in a sketchy part of the city. But when the driver got to the stop, he let her out before the second van was there and took off.

Meanwhile, providers at the day program where she was expected panicked when she didn’t show up and no one seemed to know where she was.

When she finally did arrive, hours later, workers rushed her to the hospital to make sure nothing bad had happened that she wouldn’t be able to communicate about.

She was OK.

But the system isn’t.

Cherie Brummans, executive director for the Alliance of Community Service Providers, a large group of organizations that serve adults with disabilities, said SEPTA needs to gets creative, whether it’s advocating for more funding or using technology more effectively to make the system more flexible and reliable.

For its part, SEPTA said a lot of what it has said before: Managers plan to meet internally and with Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who called for the hearing. They’ve also met with a consultant who will review the system and recommend changes, though there was a timeline for neither.

“I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know their experience, but I do think we have to keep pushing,” Brummans said. Ideally before 2018, when a federal mandate begins to move many clients into mainstream jobs that are not going to be as flexible as some of the programs they’re in now.

“We’re hopeful we can get back to the table and talk about real solutions and get it right,” Brummans said.

Here we are again . . .