13 Investigates: IndyGo bus system for riders with disabilities finally running on time

An IndyGo rider on one of the buses. (WTHR staff)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — A new management team, improved scheduling and ongoing pressure from IndyGo and its riders seem to be working as the city’s bus system for riders with disabilities is once again running on time following months of dismal service.

“We’re really pleased with the improvements we're seeing,” said Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s vice president of public affairs and communications. “We are seeing steady increases in on-time performance.”

Louis Zingale gets off the bus after a three hour ride in October. (WTHR Staff)

Last fall, that on-time performance had dropped to embarrassingly low rates, resulting in customers missing work and school and being forced to cancel or reschedule critically important medical appointments.

A WTHR investigation exposed ongoing problems within IndyGo’s Open Door paratransit bus system. 13 Investigates revealed on-time performance averaged 68 percent in September and 77 percent in October — far below the 90 to 95 percent on-time rate expected by IndyGo. Data obtained by 13 Eyewitness News showed on some days, nearly half of all Open Door pick-ups were at least 30 minutes late. Hundreds of paying customers were left waiting for their bus rides – sometimes for hours – and inefficient route scheduling meant some riders were stuck on their buses for two, four, even six hours just to make a trip across town.

One rider told WTHR she was hospitalized after late Open Door buses forced her to miss several dialysis appointments. The family of another rider filed a missing person’s report with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department after it took nearly four hours for their son to be transported five miles to his home from Ben Davis High School.

Bob Segall and Tony Eckert (Source: WTHR staff)

“This problem has actually been going on for years,” rider Tony Eckert told WTHR last fall, as he waited for an Open Door bus that was nearly 90 minutes late. “I can’t depend on Open Door to do anything I need to do, and it’s just gotten to the point where people don’t want to go out anymore because they cannot schedule anything. I’m very frustrated.”

IndyGo blamed the problem on Transdev, a transportation contractor that took over operations of the Open Door service in April 2018. In its $55 million, 5-year contract with IndyGo, Transdev pledged to maintain a 90% on-time performance rate while operating the paratransit bus service. About 4,000 disabled riders in Marion County rely on that service.

Amid serious scheduling and staffing problems, Transdev struggled to run Open Door during its first eight months after taking over the bus service, triggering outrage by both riders and the IndyGo Board of Directors who called the poor service “ridiculous” and “unacceptable.”

Drastic action, drastic improvements

IndyGo started fining Transdev last fall for service deficiencies, an allowable penalty for poor service outlined in the company’s five-year contract. Between July and September, Transdev racked up $178,650 in penalties, including $92,900 for paratransit rides that exceeded two hours, $73,450 for missed trips due to late pickup, and thousands more for low on-time performance, low call answer rates and high complaint volumes. When the fines did not work, IndyGo notified the company it was withholding $960,307 – its entire September invoice – for its "continuing failure to perform its contractual duties."

At that point, Transdev assigned a new manager to take control of its Indianapolis service center. On-time rates have been improving steadily ever since, exceeding the mandated minimum benchmark of 90 percent in January and March.

IndyGo Open Door On-Time Performance

  • November 83 percent
  • December 89 percent
  • January 92 percent
  • February 87 percent
  • March 92 percent

IndyGo's open-door bus service on-time performance chart over 6 months (Source: WTHR staff)

Eckert has definitely noticed the change. Last Friday, Open Door buses were right on schedule to pick him up for a medical appointment and to return him home. Eckert says it’s been months since a paratransit bus has been significantly late for one of his scheduled pickups.

“Overall, it’s been much better. Most of the time, I’m only waiting maybe 15 minutes tops. They’re waiting for me sometimes,” he said with laughter. “I think they’ve really stepped up. It’s gotten a lot better.”

IndyGo, which called for "immediate, immediate, specific immediate action" several months ago, says staffing and scheduling changes by Transdev are the biggest factors in the turnaround.

“There’s new people in place that really understand the technology, that understand the scheduling system, and that understand this is a really critical service for the community,” Luellen told 13 Investigates.

Even in recent months, Transdev has still been assessed “liquidated damages” for not meeting some of the benchmarks outlined in its IndyGo Open Door contract, but those monthly fines are now considerably less than what they were several months ago. Transdev paid IndyGo an average of about $30,000 in fines per month from December to March, compared to an average of more than $65,000 in monthly damages from September to December.

Several passengers using the IndyGo paratransit system. (Source: WTHR staff)

“We’re still going to continue to hold the contractor accountable to the contract they bid on, but when you’re talking about a $55 million contract, the amount of damages we’re seeing now are to be expected and well within what we’d expect,” Luellen explained.

IndyGo continues to withhold nearly a million dollars from the transportation contractor for its terrible on-time performance last September. Asked whether that $960,000 monthly payment has been permanently forfeited or if IndyGo plans to release those funds to Transdev in the future, an IndyGo spokesman said that was still unclear.

Planning for the future

As the on-time performance of its Open Door service has gone up, IndyGo says the number of rider complaints has gone down. Despite the progress, the agency still thinks there are plenty of improvements to be made, prompting a wide-ranging study designed to make the Open Door bus service better.

The IndyGo Board just approved funding for a Comprehensive Operation Analysis of Open Door operations to “facilitate long-range planning for its paratransit service and mobility services, improve paratransit service offerings, and identify opportunities for potential partnership with emerging mobility providers.”

The in-depth audit will be led by an outside consultant, who will evaluate IndyGo’s existing service, identify challenges and opportunities in IndyGo’s current approach, make recommendations to improve the service for users and identify efficiencies in the paratransit operations. The eight-month study will cost $224,855.