When Debbie Deatherage’s day at LC Industries ends at 3:30 p.m., she and others on the same shift walk to a pick-up spot and wait for their ride home. Sometimes the driver doesn’t arrive until 5 p.m., she testified recently.

Several Louisville residents reported similar experiences and added that even if their ride arrived on time, they could spend more than two hours riding around Louisville before they made it to their stop. Others complained about no-shows, or of being dropped off far from where they should be. Drivers were talking and texting on their cellphones while driving in a reckless fashion, some said, while others added that TARC vehicles jolted them and were in need of repairs.

Misty Grover told the Louisville Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee that in other cases, drivers haven’t always been sensitive to her colostomy bag. It gets squished in between her and the seatbelt and ends up exploding, she said. “That’s humiliating. That’s not right, either.”

TARC offers disabled Louisvillians rides via TARC 3, First Transit and Yellow Cab. | Courtesy of TARC

TARC offers disabled Louisvillians rides via TARC 3, First Transit and Yellow Cab. | Courtesy of TARC

The common thread among these complaints is that all the people who testified in front of the committee are in some way physically disabled. They are blind, confined to a wheelchair or have other aid to help them walk. Deatherage, Grover and others at a recent meeting can’t just hop in a car and go right to their destinations. They all rely on the city’s paratransit to get to appointments, to church, to the mall or restaurants, but even that only operates during certain hours.

“Why don’t we have that freedom? That needs to be a right,” Grover said. “I still have a life I have to live, things I have to do, family obligations.”

The Public Safety Committee hosted a special meeting last month to address concerns raised by paratransit users, people who use TARC 3 or one of the other transportation options open to Louisville’s disabled community.

Committee chair David James (D-6) said he first heard complaints about paratransit service during a joint meeting of the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition and Louisville’s African American Caucus.

“I felt some disappointment in the services that government is providing to its citizens. I felt the anger of some of our citizens that have a disability that they are not in some instances being treated in the way they should be treated,” James said after the Sept. 14 meeting.

Barry Barker, executive director of TARC, was unable to attend the meeting at the last minute, and James said a follow-up meeting would be held in the coming weeks so the committee could ask Barker about the complaints. However, increasing violence in Louisville took precedence and the second meeting was postponed. It now is on the schedule for 3:30 p.m. Nov. 9 in Louisville Metro Council chambers.

After hearing the testimony of various citizens, James questioned whether TARC was taking appropriate action.

“What are we doing about the complaints? Do we actually investigate the complaints?” he said. “It doesn’t sound like we do.”

In an interview with Insider Louisville this month, Barker said he watched the video of the meeting to hear the comments and concerns of paratransit users.

“I don’t want anybody insulated from the complaint process,” he said. “If we messed up, we need to figure out how.”

How paratransit operates

The Transit Authority of River City operates TARC 3, a shared-ride system specifically for paratransit users. It also outsources paratransit riders to Cincinnati-based First Transit and to Yellow Cab, which have vehicles that can accommodate disabled riders. All three operate from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. seven days a week.

Anyone within three-fourths of a mile of a fixed TARC route must ride a regular TARC bus, all of which are low to the ground and have a fold out ramp for riders in wheelchairs. If the disabled person lives or works outside that three-fourth mile buffer around TARC’s fixed routes, they are eligible to be picked up by TARC 3, First Transit or Yellow Cab.

Paratransit users pay $3 per one-way trip for all paratransit, or 80 cents if they ride the regular bus.

TARC makes some exceptions, particularly for companies that employ a large number of disabled citizens, Barker said. Because those with disabilities often have a hard time finding work — 10.7 percent of the disabled U.S. population was unemployed in 2015 — TARC will make sure they have a paratransit vehicle pick up workers and drop them at a designated spot near their offices or job sites.

“That was an attempt to get people to jobs,” he said.

Paratransit has some 1,800 riders a day, which costs $12 million to $13 million a year. Each paratransit trip costs TARC roughly $30 to $34, Barker said.

First Transit has a five-year, $46.75 million contract with TARC. The contract, which expires this time next year, has two one-year options to renew, and TARC already is planning to renew until at least September 2018. Yellow Cab’s five-year contract is valued at $15 million.

TARC outsources most of its paratransit because of labor costs, Barker said, noting it is cheaper than running the service completely in-house. Paratransit still is the most costly but also the most rapidly growing ridership group.

TARC’s annual budget comes out of the Mass Transit Trust Fund, which is financed by local occupational tax revenue, bus fares and federal money. TARC is governed by its board of directors, not the council or Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, Barker said, but Metro Council must vote each year to allow TARC to extract a set amount of money from the fund to pay for expenses.

Barry Barker, executive director of TARC, spoke about the financial and environmental benefits of zero-emission buses. | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

Barry Barker, right, executive director of TARC,  said, “If we messed up, we need to figure out how.” | Photo by Caitlin Bowling

“We are spending about 12, 13 percent of our budget on about 3 percent of our ridership,” Barker said. “Because of the restrictions that I told you about, about how we can’t deny trips, we’ve got to meet the growth. It’s the fastest growing part of our ridership.”

When someone calls asking to schedule a ride, TARC cannot ask why they are going to a certain location, or prioritize certain trips over others, Barker said. A trip to the doctor’s office is treated as equally important as a ride to the movie theater.

“We can’t deny anybody a trip,” he said, adding: “We can’t say, ‘No, you have to call back. We are going to book everyone to dialysis first.’ We have to be agnostic when it comes to trip purpose.”

After all, those who ride a standard TARC aren’t asked why they are going somewhere or even where they are going, Barker said.

Tallying up the complaints

From January 2015 to August 2016, TARC received 3,261 complaints and 566 commendations from paratransit users. This is an average of 5.4 complaints a day.

Of course, there is another way to look at it. During that same period, TARC 3, First Transit and Yellow Cab took 838,609 individual trips — meaning TARC receives complaints on less than 0.4 percent of its rides.

“We actually encourage people to complain because it’s one solid way we can figure out what’s going on. Those complaints were useful. There wasn’t a whole lot there that I hadn’t heard before and that we work at,” Barker said of the testimony paratransit users gave at the September meeting.

TARC employees respond to complaint calls as they come in, Barker said, and depending on the severity of the complaint, he may return a call.

“For instance, I’ll get a call from someone. It will start with (me) holding the phone out to here,” Barker said, holding his hand a foot from his ear. “Usually, I can get them to be reasonable, and I’ll tell them ‘Look, I’m going to look into this. I’m going to take care of this.’ So I get off, and I’ll send an email to Sandra (Fuqua with TARC customer service), and I’ll also send that email to whoever’s responsible for it.”

But a couple of paratransit users disputed that at the meeting. “We file complaints; they are supposed to get back to us in two weeks, and we hear nothing,” Deatherage said.

Top complaints, according to statistics TARC provided, are drivers not showing up and late pick-ups or dropoffs.

Traffic, texting and driving

TARC needs to provide better oversight when it comes to outsourced paratransit, Marcellus Mayes, head of the Louisville Metro Disability Coalition, said at the council committee meeting.

“Their main objective is not to focus on Marcellus Mayes or TARC. It’s to make money,” he said.

The equipment in paratransit vehicles is not adequately updated, Mayes said. Drivers aren’t sensitive to the needs of paratransit users, and some talk on their phones while driving, meaning they aren’t paying attention to the passengers, he added.

Other riders also have complained about drivers texting and driving or talking on their cellphones while driving, but Barker argued that riders don’t know if the driver is texting or looking at their cell to look at routes when they hit heavy traffic.

“They don’t know that,” he said.

Drivers use mobile data terminals in their vehicles that don’t update automatically with traffic during trips, said Priscilla Rao, TARC’s director of paratransit and customer service. Trips are preplanned.

“The human beings are able to adjust if they are given enough breathing room,” Barker chimed in.

Although GPS is a readily available tool in today’s society, paratransit drivers don’t have the ability to adjust their trips using that technology.

“Yeah, I can look on my cellphone and get the time — and you listen to people complain about the driver being on the cellphone,” Barker said, following the comment by mimicking the drum noise made after a joke is told.

The late dropoff times and pick-up times are a result of traffic and changing ride requests, he said.

TARC 3 | Courtesy of TARC

Paratransit drivers use a mobile terminal in their cars with preplanned routes to navigate the city. | Courtesy of TARC

Some riders schedule daily trips, such as rides to work that they make at the same time during the week, through a subscription service. Other trips can be scheduled one to seven days in advance, and TARC creates “what hopefully are logical routings for drivers then go follow,” Barker said. But each day, about 200 riders cancel their rides, which changes the plan.

TARC also has to work in 50 to 80 calls for rides day-of, Rao said.

Barker blamed construction related to the Ohio River Bridges Project and other roadway repairs for late pick-ups and drop-offs. “Traffic downtown’s been horrendous,” he said.

Another top call TARC receives doesn’t necessarily qualify as a complaint but shows some communication problems. “Request for no-show to be removed” has for the past two years at least been the first or second most logged complaint.

In the same way that paratransit users can call to say a driver did not show up, drivers could mark paratransit users as no-shows. Oftentimes, when a paratransit user calls to have the no-show mark removed, it is because there was confusion over the exact pick-up location or time, Barker said.

Although no punitive action can be taken, riders don’t want multiple no-shows on their record, he said, because then they will get a call or letter from TARC.

‘The only way things will change’

Speakers listed a litany of other complaints.

In multiple instances, Bill Deatherage said he’s noticed that drivers have “buzzed” past his stops, leaving him blocks from where he needs to be. Deatherage is legally blind but has some limited sight.

Another speaker, Charlie Sims, said the quality of the vehicles is lacking.

“The vehicles they use are nothing but flatbed trucks,” said Sims, who’s a former member of the TARC Accessibility Advisory Council. “We’re fragile. They treat cargo better.”

In the interview with Insider Louisville, Barker agreed with Sims, saying that TARC is working to replace the existing vehicles that TARC 3 uses that include truck chassis, which can cause bumpy rides for wheelchair-bound riders.

“That has been a longstanding problem,” he said.

Riders questioned how much training drivers for First Transit and Yellow Cab have, and how much the drivers are vetted. One woman said she refuses to ride with a driver who she described as “arrogant” and having a “volatile attitude.”

TARC officials told IL that First Transit drivers receive 84 hours of training, and Yellow Cab drivers are trained for 100 hours. By comparison, regular TARC drivers take 40 hours of classes and spend four to five weeks driving with a trained TARC bus driver before hitting the road alone.

Yellow Cab’s training course comes from Easterseals Project Action Consulting, a national organization that specializes in training paratransit drivers. First Transit uses a training course developed by the Louisville-based disability resource center Center for Accessible Living.

Center for Accessible Living logoJan Day, CEO of the Center for Accessible Living, acknowledged that paratransit in Louisville is not perfect, but said the organization tries to work with First Transit and TARC to make improvements.

“That is the most important thing they can do is listen and be respectful of the person,” she said. “We have brought in three or four people with different disabilities that talk to them about the way you approach different disabilities.”

Paratransit is not without its problem though. Day said she’s talked to First Transit about making changes to the training and having drivers spend a little time in a wheelchair to experience how challenging it can be.

“First Transit has not been quite as forthcoming about incorporating that yet,” she said.

Day also recalled that following an ADA event the Center for Accessible Living hosted this past July, there were multiple problems with pick-ups. All the paratransit drivers were stopping to pick people up in the wrong stop and no-showing them.

“The message hadn’t been transmitted from the dispatches,” she said. “It’s 110-degrees out in the sun, and you can’t leave people out like that. I think we were able to get a change there.”

Day said she has always found TARC to be responsive to complaints.

“We have found that when we did have a problem, that instead of saying ‘no, we can’t,’ TARC has always been pretty good about ‘What can we do to make it better,’ ” she said, adding: “If you are afraid to make a complaint, come in and we will help you make a complaint. That is the only way things will change.”