‘Transportation is not a luxury’: Paratransit riders air frustrations  

  • Carmen Rosado, an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, boards a PVTA paratransit van after her work day at the Stavros Amherst office on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • At 5:43 p.m. on Wednesday, Carmen Rosado, an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, gets her expected robocall to let her know that a PVTA paratransit van is on its way to pick her up from work. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carmen Rosado has worked as an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst since 2009. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, after work she passes the time while waiting for a call to let her know that a PVTA paratransit van is on its way to pick her up. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carmen Rosado, an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, leaves work Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 24, 2018, to board the PVTA van that provides ADA paratransit service. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carmen Rosado, right, an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst, boards a PVTA paratransit van after her work day at the Stavros Amherst office on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Khionna Steele, center, is the driver for the contractor that operates the ADA paratransit service, National Express. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Carmen Rosado has worked as an advocate at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst since 2009. On Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, after work she passes the time while waiting for a call to let her know that a PVTA paratransit van is on its way to pick her up. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2018 12:08:07 AM

NORTHAMPTON — When Carmen Rosado reaches the end of her day, she needs to know what time she’ll be picked up the next morning for work. As a quadriplegic wheelchair user, Rosado often relies on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s paratransit vans for rides, so having that information is essential for planning her day.

But Rosado hasn’t been getting the phone messages that the paratransit company usually sends telling her a pickup time. What’s worse, some of her co-workers at the Stavros Center for Independent Living in Amherst have been waiting up to two hours for their paratransit rides to arrive, according to Rosado.

“Transportation is not a luxury,” Rosado said. “It’s a necessity for many people of all ages.”

Rosado’s complaints were just some of those heard Tuesday, at City Hall, during a quarterly PVTA meeting for paratransit riders, who were given the chance to air their concerns with the paratransit service. Though the meeting was meant to be a conversation with National Express, the new company operating PVTA’s paratransit vans, often the discussion turned to larger structural problems: the underfunding of public transportation across the state, the lack of truly comprehensive transit services for people with disabilities, and frustration with lawmakers on Beacon Hill.

“We have a disabled community, we have an elderly community, we have a low-income community,” PVTA administrator Sandra Sheehan told riders frustrated with the paratransit service. “Additional resources are needed for us to meet the needs of our population.”

Because of rising costs — fuel, health care, employee pay raises — combined with not enough funding from the state to maintain services, PVTA has experienced cuts this fiscal year and last. 

State lawmakers approved additional state money this year for regional transit authorities, or RTAs, many of which are also struggling. A condition of the funding was that a task force would look into management and possible improvements at the state’s 15 RTAs — a move Sheehan praised.

Advocates have raised the fear that service cuts would disproportionately affect people with disabilities, people of color, the elderly and low-income residents of the Pioneer Valley. The PVTA provides door-to-door paratransit service for those within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed bus route. Because paratransit is a complement to the fixed-route bus system, paratransit is cut when fixed routes are also cut.

“It’s an issue of equity and an issue of sustainability,” Sheehan said of regional transit funding. In the meantime, while that funding is lacking, the agency holds forums like the one on Tuesday to work with riders, she added: “This is the reason why we do this.”

On Tuesday, those impacted by changes to the paratransit service again voiced their frustration with the state of public transit in western Massachusetts, a region largely dependent on car travel.

“This area, western Mass, isn’t easy,” said Vera Perez Santiago, of Florence. 

Perez Santiago is a substitute teacher in Holyoke, and because of her limited vision, she rides PVTA paratransit to work. Recently, she has been dropped off an hour before her job begins, and occasionally she has been picked up two hours after work.

“I’m not even asking for a privilege,” Perez-Santiago said. “I’m just trying to go to work at a decent hour and leave at a decent hour.”

Another rider, Robert Adams, said he waited more than two hours for a ride after a doctor’s appointment.

PVTA paratransit vans have a one-hour window in which they can schedule a passenger’s trip; and under federal law, they cannot require someone eligible for paratransit under the Americans with Disabilities Act to begin a trip more than one hour before or after that passenger’s desired departure time.

Mary Eileen Tremble, 51, of Easthampton, said the lack of Sunday service prevents her from traveling to see people on the weekend.

“I can’t get to a family barbeque on a Sunday,” she said. A PVTA representative at the meeting said that only five of 24 communities now have service on Sundays.

Some of the complaints on Tuesday were specific to National Express, the new operator of the paratransit vans. The PVTA contracted with National Express earlier this year after the agency’s contract with Hulmes Transportation in Belchertown expired.

Michael Hunter, the company’s general manager, was on hand to try to address specific problems that riders have.

“We have issues,” Hunter admitted, “and we want to try to fix them.”

One rider said that the drivers on a pilot shuttle bus program between the Academy of Music and the Survival Center were confused about how much riders were supposed to pay, and sometimes didn’t know where they were going. Sheehan identified that those drivers should also be given transfer tickets for passengers making connections to other buses.

Hunter said that his company had a short window to take over service from Hulmes, and they are still working out some wrinkles. To address evening waits, Hunter said they are adding more drivers to those times.

Several riders expressed frustration with the fact that they weren’t getting messages that their driver was on the way — an issue Sheehan attributed to spotty coverage in parts of the Pioneer Valley. The PVTA is looking into installing different antennas to address that issue, which was also raised at a similar meeting held earlier in the day in Springfield, she said.

While the PVTA, National Express and riders were able to come up with some solutions on Tuesday — more transparency about similar meetings in the future, for example — some complained about how the PVTA communicated with them about problems. “It’s the way they talk to you,” said Perez Santiago. “If they don’t have a way to fix something, at least show empathy.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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