Increasingly frustrated with complaints from disabled county riders, Palm Beach County commissioners recently put Metro Mobility on probation until July.
Palm Tran Executive Director Chuck Cohen has counseled patience, despite reports that its lateness has even caused health problems for riders.
However, internal emails obtained by The Palm Beach Post show increasing concern inside the department about whether Metro Mobility can perform to the standards of its $90 million contract with the county.
Among its issues:
- On-time performance. The slips of paper handed in by drivers indicate it’s improving, but the firm is behind on its promise to install GPS devices on the vans, which would prove that claim.
- Its maintenance and replacement of vans to be sure they’re safe is not acceptable to the director of Palm Tran Connection. In fact, an email he wrote to Cohen indicates he doesn’t think it will ever be up to standard.
- Fines build up for lack of performance, though Cohen has gone so far as to ask the county to dismiss them. The county was not so forgiving.
When they set the July 15 deadline, commissioners tabled a recommendation by Cohen to forgive nearly $1 million of the $1.4 million in fines.
Transportation advocate Tomas Boiton is outraged Cohen would even suggest that commissioners forgive such a large amount. He says the recommendation defies Cohen’s own logic that the worst service failures occurred during the six-week start-up period that began Aug. 13, when Metro took over.
By Boiton’s calculation, the largest amount Metro should be forgiven would be $197,715, which covers the transition period between Aug. 13 and Sept. 30.
Boiton is mystified that Palm Tran is not exercising greater control over Metro, a large county budget item.
“If you take a look at the county’s budget, after police and fire, Palm Tran is their next biggest expense, and Palm Tran Connection is almost half of Palm Tran’s budget,” Boiton said.
Contract is for $90 million
Palm Beach County is paying Metro $90 million over five years to run its paratransit service, which provides about 3,300 trips a day in specially equipped vans and minivans owned by Metro. Metro’s riders are the elderly and the chronically ill, who often have regular appointments for kidney dialysis and other vital medical treatments.
Time after time, riders have stood at the rostrum and told commissioners they had been subjected to long ride times and even vans that never showed up.
Many also contacted The Palm Beach Post, including the mother of a college student who suffered a grand mal seizure after a two-hour ride on Metro caused him to miss his medication. A blind rider told The Post he was left stranded at night when a Metro van failed to pick him up after his doctor appointment.
As Commissioner Shelley Vana, who received many riders’ complaints, grew increasingly frustrated, she warned her fellow commissioners that someone would have to die before Metro service improved.
In mid-April, the son of an 89-year-old man filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Metro, claiming that his father died as a result of injuries he suffered when a Metro driver dropped him.
Metro’s contract allows the county to fine it for a variety of violations, from lateness to lack of fuel-efficient vehicles.
To date, Metro has paid only about $90,000 in fines for contract violations. In monthly letters sent to Palm Tran, Metro has disputed all the fines, known as liquidated damages.
When asked why he never recommended that commissioners fire Metro, even after months of contract violations, Cohen replied: “You have to look at the big picture. They have a contract, and that gives us certain rights. But the question is, which options do we take and what is the impact of those options?”
On April 23, three of Metro’s minority contractors told commissioners they would be driven out of business if they were forced to pay their portion of the fines. At the same meeting, Metro attorney Neil Schiller submitted a request that commissioners forgive $207,240 more of the fines and give Metro 24 months to pay the fines.
Cohen recommended forgiving $951,667, which includes $353,032 for Metro vehicles that don’t meet Palm Tran safety standards, $109,380 for vehicles not converted to fuel-efficiency and $291,540 for vehicles that did not have GPS installed.
According to Metro’s contract, GPS devices and software compatible with Palm Tran’s should have been installed in October. Commissioners told Metro on April 23 that the GPS now must be installed by July 15, and gave Metro another two months to produce on-time records based on GPS location of its vans.
The lack of GPS equipment on Metro vans, which accounts for $291,540 of the fines, has been a contentious issue because commissioners and transportation advocates have said for months that they did not believe that Metro drivers and dispatchers were recording true pickup times. Since August, Metro drivers have provided handwritten logs of their trips. Metro’s on-time reports are based on those logs.
Cohen said it made sense to forgive $291,540 in fines for not having GPS equipment because a choice had to be made.
“Once they got behind the eight ball, one of (Metro’s) arguments was that they could not take these vehicles out of service (to add GPS),” Cohen said. “Our priority was on the customers and getting the service fixed.” He added that once GPS is finally added to Metro vans, “it will be important in being able to prove or disprove” on-time figures.
He said that he recommended waiving the fuel-efficiency violations for the same reason, that taking Metro vehicles off-line to convert them to fuel-efficient hybrids would further harm service.
Director has doubts
Another large chunk of the fines that Cohen recommended waiving was $353,032 for vehicles that don’t meet Palm Tran standards. That recommendation was contradicted by a memo written by Ron Jones, director of Palm Tran Connection, the county’s paratransit service. Palm Tran Connection oversees Metro.
Even as Cohen continued to assure commissioners in April that Metro had improved its service since August, Jones expressed strong doubts that Metro was able to replace and service its vans in a timely fashion.
Palm Tran regulations require that vans be periodically removed from service when they reach a certain age and mileage. About 61 Metro vans are on a schedule to be replaced.
In an April 16 email, Jones wrote to Cohen and Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman that Metro was tardy in replacing the vehicles on time.
“Every 30 days since the first of the year the (vehicle) delivery schedule has been pushed out another 30 days. I have no faith in them meeting this new date,” Jones wrote. “Given the age, condition and poor maintenance of these vehicles, I cannot see allowing them to operate these vehicles as backups. As well, this is a contract violation.”
In a May 6 interview to discuss Metro’s performance, Cohen did not allow Jones to answer a Palm Beach Post reporter’s request to discuss that memo.
“I don’t think it’s fair for Ron to answer that,” Cohen said.
Instead, Cohen said he has told Metro that its mechanics will be receiving unscheduled inspections. Cohen added he made it clear to Palm Tran vehicle inspectors they must take any questionable Metro vehicles out of service if they have any safety concerns. Jones said that most of the safety issues have been about tires.
“We let them know that we were going to be watching,” Cohen said. “We are more confident of their ability to repair vehicles in a timely fashion.”
But later in the same interview, Jones explained that his concern was that Metro staff does not consistently inform him when replacement vans arrive.
“They are kind of hard to pin down,” said Jones.
Jones said he has had to keep reminding Metro to order the new vehicles because of the 90 days it takes to build them. Meanwhile, the clock continues to run on vehicles that are aging out of the system.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of this,” Jones said. “If they don’t order now, they will not receive them in time.”
Metro was late in getting 40 new vehicles by Jan. 1, but now has 58 new vehicles in service, Jones said.
Cohen said 11 new vans were scheduled to be delivered this month.
Since August, Metro has had trouble getting enough properly equipped vehicles on the road. In October, Metro owner Cullan Meathe told commissioners the vans were late in being delivered because he placed an order at the end of the model year manufacturing cycle. A van specially equipped for handicapped riders takes about 90 days to build from scratch, according to Jones.
Many Metro riders remain skeptical and frustrated about Metro’s ability to do its job, which is to deliver them to the proper destinations in a timely fashion.
At the April 23 commission meeting, Patricia Hayes, past president of the National Federation of the Blind, delivered a blistering summation of the riders’ plight. She described one trip, in which a Metro driver took one hour and 40 minutes to get Hayes from her West Palm Beach home to the Palm Tran rail station, a journey she said should take no more than 10 minutes. The driver wandered for some time, clearly lost, Hayes said.
Hayes described the driver on another trip as “totally incompetent, inept … could not even find the governmental center, a building that is 11 stories tall.”
WHAT THE POST FOUND
Palm Beach Post reporter Lona O’Connor was the first to report in October the numerous complaints filed with Palm Tran Connection for late arrivals, long transit times and other complaints since Palm Tran hired a single company instead of three to provide service. She has continued to report on the issues of the ongoing story.