Complaints that a new contractor had left disabled riders waiting or stranded forced Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority staffers to handle some of the provider's dispatch functions last week, leaving some board members wondering whether they'd made a mistake when awarding the contract.
But by week's end, the problems — caused by a computer glitch — were solved, PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher said. And plans were under way to provide backup phone lines to make sure the communication system would not go down again.
But the journey to restoring full-service transportation was tough.
The situation goes back several years. PSTA, which is federally mandated to supply transportation for disabled people, had contracted with a company called TCSI to provide DART, or "on-demand" service, to disabled people who were not otherwise able to ride the regular buses. Those who qualified for DART service were provided taxis or wheelchair-ready vans when they needed it. The passenger paid twice what he would pay for regular bus fare and PSTA paid the remainder.
TCSI had Yellow Cab providing some of the on-demand service, but in 2004, the taxi company pulled out — without warning, news reports from the time say.
"They weren't providing the service we required at the time," said R.B. Johnson, Indian Rocks Beach mayor and current head of the PSTA board.
Wheelchair Transport took over from Yellow Cab and was still providing service when the PSTA board asked for bids for a new contract this year. PSTA staff members looked over the bids and investigated the companies that bid. It came down to TCSI/Wheelchair Transport or Yellow Cab of Clearwater.
TCSI/Wheelchair Transport had the higher rating from the PSTA staff. Wheelchair Transport also had the gratitude of board members for coming to their rescue four years ago. But Yellow Cab was not far behind in the rankings and its bid was much less — an average of $12.40 per ride vs. $12.96 per ride (the passenger pays $3.50 of that; PSTA pays the remainder). That made the overall cost of the contract with Yellow Cab about $3.5-million, which was 26.9 percent less than the $4.8-million the PSTA had budgeted for TCSI in fiscal 2007-08.
Some board members had doubts, said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who also serves on the PSTA board. They wondered if the low bid indicated an inability to deliver services. They wondered if Yellow Cab would repeat its 2004 decision to withdraw from the contract.
But company representatives noted that Yellow Cab had changed hands since 2004 and assured officials that Yellow Cab could handle the workload. But when Oct. 1 rolled around, it appeared board members may have made the wrong decision.
Dunedin Commissioner Julie Bujalski sent an e-mail to PSTA executive director Tim Garling that said, "I've received several phone calls this week regarding some issues with DART rides. Several residents have said they were either not picked up close to the time they were supposed to or not picked up at all."
Bujalski asked for an update.
Garling replied that only the nonwheelchair transport had been affected and the cause appeared to be a software glitch. He assured board members that the problem was being worked on. To reduce problems, PSTA took over some of the switchboard service and, as Lasher, the PSTA spokesman said, "leaned" on Yellow Cab.
Lasher said Thursday the problem was caused by one line of programing in the software. That has been fixed, he said. Also, Yellow Cab was putting in analog lines in case the digital phones lines failed and was also installing fiber optic lines, which are more reliable. And, the cab company is expanding its switchboard to ensure there are enough lines to handle the call volume.