Transportation service for Detroiters with disabilities is in limbo after the City Council voted down a controversial contract with a highly-criticized vendor that narrowly gained approval before one member changed her vote.
For the last six years, Detroit’s paratransit services had been handled by the French company Transdev. In that time, the company gained a reputation among members of the city’s disabled community for providing subpar customer service. The council delayed a vote on the contract for weeks while deciding whether it was better to extend Detroit’s relationship with Transdev – which is besieged with complaints from users who reported late rides, drop offs in the wrong location, and staff who don’t understand specific disability needs – or go without 70% of Detroit’s paratransit services while finding a new vendor.
Advocates, Detroit transit officials and the city’s Office of Disability Affairs spent hours discussing the five-year $49 million contract with Transdev during a marathon meeting Tuesday. The City Council seemed to put an end to the issue by voting 5-3 to approve the contract, though members who supported the contract said they did so reluctantly. Tuesday’s meeting was the last scheduled before the council goes on recess until January.
Later on, just as the council finished its last items of business, Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero made a motion to reconsider the contract and changed her vote to no. Her switch turned the tables, causing the contract to fail by a 4-4 vote. Santiago-Romero told colleagues after changing her vote that “I really had to vote my conscience on this one.”
“Ultimately, I was always going to vote no, and I felt pressure to vote yes because of the hard spot we were at, but it felt really unfair to have to feel forced to vote yes,” Santiago-Romero told BridgeDetroit after the meeting. “The administration has to figure out a solution. This is on them to figure out something that is amenable to the residents, and voting this down means they can now go back and figure out a (new) contract. I should have voted no in the first place because that’s what I wanted to do.”
Stephanie Washington, chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan, slammed the council in a statement to BridgeDetroit, saying “we now have to go about the business of cleaning up City Council’s mess.”
Beginning Dec. 18, the city will reduce the number of available rides from 1,000 to 300, Washington said. Priority will be placed on people who need to make medical appointments or have an emergency. Washington said there’s normally a two-week lead time for booking paratransit rides.
“It is disappointing and disingenuous for council members to say we held this contract to the last minute to force a vote,” Washington said in the statement. “Council had this contract before them for the past six weeks and could have voted it down a month ago. At least then we would (have had) more time to start a new procurement process.”
Council Members Angela Whitfield-Calloway, Mary Waters and Latisha Johnson voted against the contract, while Council President Mary Sheffield, Pro Tem James Tate and Council Members Coleman Young and Fred Durhal III supported it. Council Member Scott Benson was absent.
Washington said while the City Council is disbanding for a six-week “vacation,” members of Detroit’s disabled community “will be dealing with the fear and anxiety of knowing that they might not be able to get where they need to go in the middle of winter.”
Now the city needs to figure out a way to replace 70% of its paratransit services before the start of the new year. It was a position the council did not want to be in; several members expressed frustration that they were put in a tough spot of having to either pass the contract, against the wishes of a vocal group of residents, or potentially go without services for an uncertain amount of time while seeking new bids.
“I’m not happy that I have to vote on this contract today in its current form,” Durhal said. “I would have liked to have had the ability to vote on something that reflects what the members of our disabled community want to see. I’m talking to you, Director Oglesby, as well and even to the administration: We’ve got to do better. We have over 130,000 residents in the city of Detroit that deal with disabilities every day.”
Durhal introduced a motion after the contract was struck down asking the Law Department to draft an opinion on how the failure of the contract affects federal transportation funding. Several council members said their backs were against the wall with Tuesday’s vote.
“I’m so tired of being put in this situation,” Waters said, “Ultimatums, you do it or you die, those kinds of situations. And this is one of those situations.”
Waters said she didn’t understand why Transdev was allowed to bid on the contract, since they provided such poor quality of service in the first place. Santiago-Romero said she didn’t feel as though the city did enough to find alternatives, but the council could meet in a special session if a new vendor is found before the end of 2022.
Waters said ultimately it was the feedback from Detroiters with disabilities who use Transdev that convinced her to vote against the contract.
“The ADA community feels so strongly about Transdev, I don’t want to force that on them,” Waters told BridgeDetroit. “They know better than I do. They are so adamant about not giving Transdev a long extended contract — 5 years — they don’t want that … They’ve been utilizing this transportation, so they know, and I don’t believe that they will be saying those things if they were not true.”
Transdev did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment from BridgeDetroit.
Sheffield said she hopes from now on, council members will have more time to debate contracts that can have a large impact on residents.
“I would just urge the administration that if we have a $49 million contract coming before council to give council adequate time to do what we were put here to do,” Sheffield said during Tuesday’s meeting, “that is to go back and forth, to negotiate, to add, to amend it and clearly we just haven’t had the amount of time to do so.”
Had the contract been approved, Transdev would have been providing about 70% of the city’s paratransit vehicles and drivers, according to Mikel Oglesby, the city’s executive director of transportation.
Despite the criticism of Transdev, Oglesby has told the council several times since October that the Detroit Department of Transportation will take over all the administrative responsibilities now provided by Transdev starting on Jan. 1, regardless of City Council’s vote.
“Under this new model, (DDOT) will be running the customer service, the scheduling, all the administrative things that people are upset with Transdev for not doing well,” Oglesby said during Tuesday’s formal session.
Christopher Samp, director of the Office of Disability Affairs, said Oglesby has a “good plan” to take control over the quality of service and argued that the transit services must continue.
“I wouldn’t try to cut down the services at this point, it’s so important to keep it running,” Samp told the council before the contract vote. “For (my office), we will collaborate with DDOT and make sure the disability community’s concerns are heard.”
According to DDOT officials, bidding for the paratransit contract began in May. Earlier this month, the council approved a $15.9 million contract with Whitmore Lake-based People’s Express to provide the other 30% of paratransit services for Detroit.
Advocates and residents with disabilities wanted a two or three-year contract instead of a five-year commitment with Transdev. However, Oglesby said Detroit could terminate the contract at any time if there are performance issues.
Lisa Franklin, founder and CEO of Warriors on Wheels of Metro Detroit – a grassroots nonprofit advocacy organization for people with disabilities, said five years is too long for a company with such a bad reputation.
“We say yes to a two-year or three-year contract that gives (Transdev) a chance to improve under this new model,” Franklin told BridgeDetroit before the council rejected the contract, “At this point, no one in the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) community believes (Transdev) can fix their issues, even if DDOT is running the system.”
Larry Donald Verse, another Detroiter in the ADA community, also advocated for a shorter contract with Transdev and said the company should be including disabled individuals in their training.
“The training, or at least part of the training, should be done by people who are actually experiencing life in the ADA community,” he argued.
DDOT officials have said that a shorter contract with Transdev would have ended up being more costly in the long run.
“If we went with the three-year approach and later exercised the two-year extension to get to five years, the cost for the five years would be $1.6 million more than the contract Council has before it today,” Kristin Lukowski, marketing and outreach coordinator for DDOT, previously told BridgeDetroit.
“None of this additional money is allocated or identified in the DDOT budget and would have to come at the cost of our existing fixed-route bus service,” Lukowski said. “To address concerns over paratransit service quality, this proposed contract has stronger provisions that we believe will result in an improved service level going forward.”
Michael Cunningham, a transit and mobility activist in Detroit, said the city needs to get feedback from the disabled community beyond just City Council meetings.
“Lately, you’ve been hearing them (the ADA community) at City Council during public comments, but that’s very recent. Usually you don’t hear from the paratransit folks, even at the DDOT input meetings. So we need to go out of our way to hear from these folks on issues that directly affect them,” he said.