Mayor Mike Duggan is planning to exercise his emergency powers to prevent the loss of most paratransit services after federal officials warned Detroit that it can’t legally curtail services for residents with a disability.
Duggan told The Detroit News at a Monday press conference that he would “put emergency contracts in place” after the City Council rejected a five-year $49 million contract with the controversial firm Transdev, a French company that supplies 70% of Detroit’s paratransit services. The contract’s failure leaves Detroit in a position where only 30% of rides would be offered in the New Year, which could risk federal funding and open the city to a Department of Justice investigation and civil lawsuits, according to a Nov. 30 letter from the Federal Transit Administration.
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Stephanie Washington, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the mayor is “exploring every emergency option possible” to ensure paratransit service is not interrupted. Representatives for Duggan’s office told BridgeDetroit on Monday that the mayor will find a solution by the end of the week.
Duggan has had ongoing meetings with officials in the city’s procurement and law departments about his ability to authorize a temporary emergency contract, representatives with the mayor’s office said, but specifics haven’t been worked out yet. An emergency contract would not require approval from the City Council, according to the city’s administration. The Transdev contract was turned down by the council based in part by ongoing complaints over poor service from riders and advocates.
Available rides offered to Detroiters with a disability are set to decrease from 1,000 per day to 300 per day once Transdev’s contract expires at the end of December. People’s Express was granted a five-year $16 million contract to provide the remaining 30% of rides. The Detroit Department of Transportation is preparing to prioritize rides for medical needs.
Kelly Brookins, regional administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, said DDOT has an obligation to ensure paratransit service continues uninterrupted. In two letters to DDOT Director Mikel Oglesby, Brookins warned that federal law prohibits Detroit from putting constraints on rides like waiting lists and trip prioritization. Failure to ensure “continued seamless operation” of the paratransit system would expose DDOT to enforcement activities, including the potential loss of federal funding, she said.
“Paratransit is an integral part of DDOT’s transit system that eligible riders with disabilities depend on to travel to work, educational opportunities, medical appointments and other daily activities in the same way as the community at large depends on the fixed route system to fulfill the same functions,” Brookins wrote in the Nov. 30 letter.
Advocates for Detroiters who have a disability, including the National Federation of the Blind, have pushed Duggan to use his emergency powers to prevent paratransit services from taking a significant cut in 2023.
Activists who criticized Transdev’s ability to provide adequate service argued the city should not accept a five-year contract with the company, instead suggesting a three-year contract should be approved while the city finds a new vendor. Members of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) community say Transdev drivers were routinely late, dropped riders off in the wrong location and ultimately provided terrible service to Detroiters. Transdev has not responded to requests for comment about the poor service claims or the council’s vote on the new contract.
DDOT is planning to bring some paratransit services in-house and is building a new department to handle reservations, hiring, scheduling, dispatching, customer complaints and other functions previously performed by Transdev.
Detroiters last week held a press conference to call on Duggan to find a solution. Some argued Detroit shouldn’t partner with Transdev, while others supported a temporary relationship while the city finds a better company to run its paratransit services.
“Now it’s up to the mayor to come up with a solution,” said Lisa Franklin, founder of Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit. “They’re telling us that because (the Transdev contract) failed, that they can only provide us with 30% service, and that is illegal. We’re not standing by to allow them to bully us into accepting this company that has treated us so bad for so many years.”