Detroiters with disabilities are pleading with Mayor Mike Duggan to find a swift solution to the impending slashing of paratransit services after the City Council rejected a controversial contract, but administration officials say a replacement deal won’t be struck anytime soon.
In its last meeting of the year, the council voted down a five-year $49 million contract with Transdev that would have allowed the French company to supply vehicles and drivers for 70% of transportation services provided to residents with disabilities. Members of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) community say Transdev has provided dismal service to Detroiters. They pushed the council for weeks to sever ties with Transdev or, as a compromise, broker a two or three-year contract while Detroit finds a better vendor.
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Starting Jan. 1, the number of daily rides offered will reduce from 1,000 to 300. The remaining 30% of services will be provided by People’s Express under a $16 million, five-year contract with the Whitmore Lake company. The service reduction is expected to create significant problems for the residents who rely on it to make medical appointments, get to work, visit loved ones and run errands.
“A lot of us are already getting rides from friends and family,” said Jamie Junior, a Detroit resident who is wheelchair bound. “That’s because we don’t trust the paratransit service to get us where we need to go. And now, with the service being cut, that’s just gonna force us to make some tough decisions.
“Not everyone has someone to drive them around,” she added. “If you’re someone who has to rely on the city’s service to get to appointments or work, you might be stuck not going anywhere for a while.”
Eugene McDonald, a partially blind Detroiter, said losing access to transit services undercuts his ability to be financially independent. McDonald said nine out of 10 rides he’s sought through Transdev have been late, sometimes for hours, and it’s cost him job opportunities.
“Imagine what my 10-year-old daughter is expecting of her father,” McDonald said. “I say ‘I got a new job.’ Within three weeks, I’m fired. (Transdev) limited my ability to be fully employed and set a great example for my daughter for the type of man she wants to choose. It has long-lasting effects.”
Advocates also warned the service reduction could cause Detroit to run afoul of federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public transit agencies that provide fixed-route service to also offer “complementary paratransit” service to people who can’t use buses due to a disability.
City Council members who spoke with BridgeDetroit said they are open to scheduling a special session in December to approve a new contract, but they can’t negotiate contracts. That role is reserved for the Office of Contracting and Procurement.
“People are still trying to just absorb what the damage is going to be, and they’re still assessing right now because it’s just such on such a massive, almost biblical, scale,” said Council Member Coleman Young, who voted in favor of the Transdev contract. “I would be very much open to a special session if that is something that can be done.”
Now the ADA community is demanding Duggan and Mikel Oglesby, the city’s executive director of transportation, come up with a solution that won’t result in residents with disabilities losing more than two-thirds of the transportation service they rely on. Ogelsby could not be reached for comment this week.
“We just lived through (the COVID-19 pandemic) and the city instituted several things to help us deal with an emergency situation, why can’t they do that for the ADA community?” Stephen Handschu, with the National Federation of the Blind, told BridgeDetroit on Thursday. “Duggan should use his emergency powers to come up with a solution right now because this is an emergency.”
City officials told BridgeDetroit there is only one option: Reopen the bidding process and hope to find a new contractor in the New Year.
Stephanie Washington, Duggan’s chief of staff, said extending the prior contract “was never on the table.” Corey McIsaac, a spokesperson for the mayor, said a three-year contract with Transdev, which many in the ADA community were willing to accept as a compromise, was “never an option.”
“The bid went out as a five-year contract,” McIsaac told BridgeDetroit in a text message. “You can’t change it after the fact, as we have explained multiple times.”
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Sandra Yu Stahl previously said a shorter contract with Transdev would cost DDOT an additional $311,000 to $330,000 per year. Stahl said DDOT could not absorb the price increase, and going back to the table with Transdev would mean a deal wouldn’t be struck before the end of the year.
Washington said a replacement for Transdev won’t be found in the remainder of this year, either. Stahl also told BridgeDetroit this week there is no set timeline for when a request for proposals will be issued.
“We’re in meetings nonstop,” Washington said. “This is a priority of ours as well. Thirty-percent capacity is just unacceptable. January through March it will be freezing. In the coldest months of the year, those paratransit users are in jeopardy of not having this service.”
Council Member Latisha Johnson, who voted against the five-year contract with Transdev, said she was willing to find a way to pay for the added costs but the mayor’s administration wasn’t.
“I think all of this could have been avoided, I really do,” Johnson said. “I don’t attempt to point fingers at anybody; we’re all responsible for what happens and what does not happen. It behooves us to work together to come to some resolution and not point the finger at one another. The attempt was to do that over the three weeks that we postponed (voting on the contract), but we kept receiving the exact same thing. There was no flexibility.”
DDOT’s 2022-2023 budget included an extra $5 million to build a paratransit department to handle reservations, hiring, scheduling, dispatching, customer complaints and other functions previously performed by Transdev. Under DDOT’s plan to bring paratransit services in-house, according to the city, Transdev would not have been responsible for any direct service to customers.
Transdev would have used 80% of the $49 million to subcontract with three minority-owned companies for rides and drivers — Texas-based Big Star Transit, LLC, Oak Park-based Moe Transportation, and Detroit-based Delray United Action Council. Transdev would have provided insurance coverage, training, oversight of vehicles, administrative duties and assumed liability for the subcontractors. Officials with Big Star, Moe Transportation and Delray United Action Council could not be reached.
Washington said the city couldn’t step into Transdev’s role and provide those same services to the three subcontractors. The city, she said, also doesn’t have the capacity and it’s unclear whether Detroit could assume legal liability for the companies.
“We did feel like we did everything that was asked, and then some,” Washington said. “We can’t cry over spilled milk. We just have to forge ahead and come up with the best solution for the paratransit community and the users.”
Washington said the city can’t ask Transdev to extend its current contract while another vendor is sought because DDOT is already in the process of assuming some of the company’s responsibilities in 2023.
“We’re just a little disappointed (it failed) as the council knew the implication of us not moving forward with the Transdev portion of this paratransit service in-house at DDOT,” Washington said. “We’re scrambling to get our plans together for Jan. 1.”
The mayor’s office has emphasized the council’s decision to reject the contract while explaining the service reduction in public announcements and in a recorded message on the paratransit hotline. However, representatives of the National Federation of the Blind, Warriors On Wheels and other ADA advocates said the council acted on behalf of their wishes.
A group held a press conference Thursday outside the city’s downtown administrative building and called on Duggan to take responsibility for the crisis – and for not having a backup plan ready.
“The blame is being deferred to the City Council, and they responded to our actions,” said Sabrina Simmons, president of the National Federation of the Blind’s Detroit chapter. “This all lays in the mayor’s hands.”
Detroit residents who spoke at Thursday’s rally shared negative Transdev experiences, which ranged from late rides, missed pickups and drop offs in the wrong location to more serious allegations of sexual misconduct by drivers. Detroiters identified themselves as business-owners, artists and community leaders before being disabled, but said Transdev has deprived them of their dignity and autonomy.
“Everybody has a horror story,” Simmons said.
Advocates said there hasn’t been enough done to inform residents that the paratransit services are being reduced in just a few weeks. Washington said public engagement efforts are still being discussed, though city web pages were updated, information was published on the city’s social media pages and through an email alert.
DDOT will prioritize rides for Detroiters seeking medical services, Washington said. Residents are generally advised to reserve rides two weeks in advance, so any rides scheduled after Dec. 18 could be affected.
Simmons, who also serves on a local advisory council that’s meant to work with city officials to strengthen public transportation services, said the council was left out of conversation until Transdev was selected for the five-year contract.
“There was no involvement of the local advisory council, and those are appointed positions by DDOT, so really it’s not an effective committee because there’s not much that they’re allowing us to do,” Simmons said.
Richard Clay, a board member for the Detroit chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, attempted to set up a meeting with Duggan after the Thursday press conference. He and Handschu visited Duggan’s office but were told the mayor was not available. Clay left a message stating that they are willing to meet and discuss solutions.
Clay said ADA advocates were told at the beginning of this year that Transdev would not be considered for paratransit services once its contract expired. When that was no longer the case, Clay argued, “all access was closed” to decision-makers within the mayor’s administration. Handschu said the crisis requires an opportunity for productive conversation.
“The only thing I really wanted to say to them is ‘we are serious about solving this and we’re not so bad,’” Handschu said. “ I mean, I throw plenty of stones. But I’d like to put them down. The goal is to solve the problem.”