IndyGo wait times for disabled riders getting worse, proposed fix 'not good enough'

(WTHR photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Problems plaguing IndyGo's bus service for riders with disabilities continue to get worse — not better — despite tough talk from Marion County transit leaders.

Earlier this month, 13 Investigates reported the on-time performance (OTP) rate for the IndyGo Open Door bus service had fallen to its lowest level in nine months. Some riders told WTHR their buses routinely arrive 60 to 90 minutes after their scheduled pick-up time and, in some instances, never show up at all. IndyGo acknowledged the late buses are not only an inconvenience, but also potentially dangerous for thousands of disabled riders who rely on the paratransit bus system to get to work, school and crucial medical appointments.

Transdev, a private company IndyGo hired to operate the Open Door program, is required by contract to maintain a 95% OTP. It has never achieved that mandate since taking control of the system in April 2018. Initially, the company’s OTP struggled to reach 80%, prompting outrage from riders and IndyGo leaders. Transdev responded by hiring additional drivers and bringing a new management team to Indianapolis, which resulted in a sharp improvement. By this spring, Open Door OTP was consistently at or above 90%. But the trend reversed this summer. On-time performance dropped to 89% in July and below 85% in September, again drawing the ire of disgusted riders and IndyGo.

"We are concerned, very concerned," IndyGo chief operating officer Roscoe Brown told WTHR last week, reiterating that 95% OTP is what IndyGo expects each month. "It's definitely not a trend we want to see. To be quite honest, if they're not able to do that, IndyGo is no other position but to possibly find another contractor to do that work."

But since those comments, the on-time rate for the Open Door bus system has dipped even further — now dropping to below 83% for September — and Transdev has been very slow to provide answers amid growing questions about its ability to effectively operate the paratransit bus system. The 83% OTP translates into nearly 2,300 late bus rides through the first 17 days of September. An Open Door bus ride is not considered late unless it arrives more than 25 minutes after its scheduled pick-up time.

"We're not talking about just a couple of minutes late," longtime Open Door bus rider Linda Gosnell told WTHR earlier this month. "It's going to be a long wait and a long ride, and lately it's been really bad."

Getting answers – finally

13 Investigates contacted Transdev two weeks ago to ask why its OTP had begun dropping, why many passengers were forced to spend more than two hours on the bus (some have endured rides longer than four hours!), and what the contractor plans to do to improve its on-time rates. By the time WTHR's news report aired a week later, no one from Transdev’s local or national headquarters had returned any of the TV station's phone calls. A Transdev spokeswoman contacted WTHR by email the following day to ask for questions in writing. Another week passed with no answers.

So Wednesday night, 13 Investigates attended a meeting of IndyGo’s Mobility Advisory Committee, a group of riders, business leaders and IndyGo staff tasked with improving the Open Door bus service. As expected, a Transdev representative attended the meeting, providing a rare opportunity for WTHR to ask face-to-face questions of the private company overseeing Marion County’s troubled paratransit bus system.

Nila Zaman knows all the challenges facing the Open Door bus service. As general manager of Transdev's Indianapolis operations center, she is also familiar with the hundreds of complaints lodged this summer by Open Door customers.

In an effort to explain the many factors impacting Open Door on-time rates, Zaman told committee members that August was a particularly rough month for Transdev. The transit company battled widespread highway construction along its bus routes, a gas leak that forced its employees to temporarily evacuate its dispatch center, and a thunderstorm that knocked out power to its operations.

"I was back there unplugging and re-plugging to see if things were going to work," she told committee members.

After the meeting, she declined to answer any questions from WTHR. Zaman first stated she could not speak about the company's performance issues because any information would have to be approved by IndyGo. When IndyGo's vice president of public affairs gave Zaman permission to discuss the contractor’s ongoing service woes, she then called a company executive before announcing that she would not be allowed to provide any information.

"All media communication is going to go through our corporate office, and you'll receive a statement today," Zaman said.

Late Thursday morning, the company’s corporate marketing office sent WTHR a statement.

"The issues related to on-time performance and wait times are complicated and there are many contributing factors," wrote Transdev marketing vice president Mitun Seguin. She blamed long Open Door wait times on outdated scheduling and dispatch equipment provided by IndyGo, summer highway construction and road closures throughout the Indianapolis area, increased traffic due to the Indiana State Fair, and an increase in early-September ridership due to IndyGo's offer of free bus rides in conjunction with the launch of the new Red Line route.

"While challenges remain, Transdev is delivering the highest OTP rates in years," Seguin wrote.

"So many excuses"

Open Door riders question those claims.

Karen Longere, who regularly waits in her wheelchair outside her downtown office building for an Open Door bus that is 60 to 90 minutes late, said those long waits were common long before the summer construction season caused additional gridlock on city roads and highways. "My pick-up is supposed to be at 5:05, but there's plenty of times I don't get home until 7:45 or after 8 at night. It shouldn't be that way month after month, and you can’t just blame that on the traffic.”

Brad Blaker, who estimated that 90% of his Open Door rides were late this spring and summer, lives on the west side of Indianapolis and relies on Open Door service to get to his west-side doctor appointments. It is not clear why the Indiana State Fair on the opposite side of the city should have any impact on his pick-up times.

Open Door ridership this month is actually lower than it was in the springtime, when Transdev had much better performance while using the same outdated communications equipment it now blames for summer delays.

"We hear all kinds of excuses," Longere told WTHR. "There’s always so many excuses. They just need to get this fixed."

Many Open Door riders say they are frustrated not only with long wait times and long ride times, but also an inability to reach dispatchers to inquire about late buses and to report problems.

"You're on hold forever. Sometimes they don't answer the phone at all, so it's frustrating to say the least," Longere said.

Improvement plan lacks details

IndyGo leaders notified Transdev that it wanted a detailed plan to fix the OTP problems delivered no later than Sept. 9. The contractor met that deadline, but the proposed plan was a big disappointment, according to Brown.

"It wasn't specific. That's the biggest concern with it," said the IndyGo chief operating officer. "There was no milestones, schedules, timetables, which really let us know the urgency of the matter was not fully considered. It’s just not good enough."

Brown said the plan submitted by Transdev includes hiring more drivers to help ease wait times. He is looking for more far more detail to help hold the contractor accountable.

"Hiring more people, that's not a specific action plan. They need to say 'We need to be staffed this level, we're short this many, we need to hire this many additional individuals by this specific date.' Those are the kinds of action plans they need to be presenting to us, and without that, it shows me they aren’t really getting it."

Transdev's statement to WTHR also lacked specifics about its improvement plan, simply stating that the company has "submitted to IndyGo additional actions that Transdev can take to further improve on-time performance and productivity."

The contractor said it has already “improved many operating procedures and processes that increased efficiency and performance” while also improving fleet maintenance, upgrading call center infrastructure and leasing extra vehicles. 13 Investigates asked Seguin for more details, but she has not yet offered additional information.

She did say the transit company reviewed the amount of time spent on Open Door buses for some of the riders featured in WTHR’s reports. Based on the analysis, Transdev said those riders’ average trip times were within the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires paratransit bus systems provide ride times that are equal or less than the normal trip time on other modes of transit.

The Transdev analysis made no mention of the long wait times that many of its riders must endure prior to getting on an Open Door bus. Those wait times can turn what should be a 35-minute ride into a commute that takes hours.

"If I don’t schedule my bus at least two and half hours before my doctor appointment, I know I won't make it," Blaker told WTHR. "If I'm going to go anywhere, I have to plan on it taking all day."

Transdev has already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in liquidated damages (fines) for failing to meet minimum service levels mandated in its $55 million contract to operate the Open Door system. IndyGo is continuing to assess those fines monthly, and Brown said “all options are on the table” when it comes to IndyGo’s desire to improve the Open Door system and to hold its contractor accountable under the terms of its contract.

Company executives from Transdev will be in Indianapolis next week to discuss more details of its remediation plan.

"We need to see specifics," Brown reiterated after Wednesday's committee meeting. "This needs to be fixed today."

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