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Disabled, elderly rely on this transportation program. It’s leaving them behind

Beth Musgrave, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Senior Living Features

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Tom Newsome likes to stay busy.

Newsome, who has an intellectual disability, goes to Employment Solutions, an organization that provides a host of services for people with disabilities, a few times a week for adult day training.

He enjoys archery and takes ukulele lessons, said Peggy Petrilli, Newsome’s mother. Newsome was dependent on Wheels, the Lextran-contracted paratransit system for people with disabilities, to get him to his appointments.

In the summer of 2023, Newsome was expecting to be picked up by Wheels for a special summer camp.

They never came. It wasn’t the first time Newsome’s Wheels ride didn’t show.

“When he was left and not picked up, he would cry,” Petrilli said. “He was so disappointed he couldn’t go.”

Petrilli said the family quit using Wheels after using the program for decades. It was too unreliable. Petrilli or her husband or other people now help get Newsome to his activities.

“He’s had to skip activities that would be very beneficial but he can’t go because we didn’t have the transportation,” Petrilli said.

Others who are dependent on Wheels don’t have the option of other transportation, said Jaye Forysthe-Seward, director of operations for Bluegrass Career Services, which provides training and job placement for people with disabilities and is a division of Employment Solutions.

Forysthe-Seward and others said they have seen a dramatic decline in Wheels paratransit services since Lextran switched from the Red Cross, which had provided the service for more than two decades, to RATP Dev in October 2022.

RATP Dev has never met its operational goals of 90% on-time rate since it was hired, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader through an Open Records Act request. Nor has it ever been fined for failing to meet those goals.

Lextran has acknowledged there are problems with the service and most recently held a series of listening tours to collect information. It says RATP Dev is making changes and blamed some of the problems on lack of drivers.

“Service has experienced delays and dropped pickups due to staffing, vehicles, scheduling, and customer cancellations/no shows,” said Emily Elliott, director of planning and community engagement for Lextran. ”RATP Dev is currently reviewing operator schedules to accommodate service demand.”

On-time numbers plummet

Rick Christman, CEO of Employment Solutions and a former Lextran board member, said it’s past time for Lextran and RATP Dev to fix the problems that have left many disabled people stranded.

“Under their contract, they can be fined if their on-time rate falls below 90 percent,” Christman said.

Lextran on-time rates show a decline in services over the past 18 months since RATP Dev, a Fort Worth, Texas, company, took over in October 2022.

From October 2022 to December 2023, the latest numbers available, RATP Dev’s percentage of on-time rides has never been above 90%, according to documents provided to the Herald-Leader through an Open Records Act request.

When RATP Dev took over, Wheels was not on time for half of its scheduled pick ups and drop offs, numbers show.

In October 2022, its on-time rate was 50.5%.

RATP Dev’s best performance was in December 2023 when it rose to 79%.

Red Cross’ on-time rate from January 2019 to June 2021 was largely above 90% and it was providing nearly twice as many rides.

In January 2019, for example, Red Cross had 19,806 rides, according to documents.

In December 2023, RATP Dev had 11,963 rides.

According to its contract with Lextran, the public transportation provider can start penalizing RATP Dev for failing to meet its on-time goal of 90% starting in October 2023.

But the contract was recently amended again, said Elliott.

The company can now be fined starting in December.

“Lextran is currently working through this process to apply infractions for excessively late and missed trips,” Elliott said.

From October 2022 to June 30, 2024, RATP Dev will have received $4.7 million for Wheels services. And that’s just the base rate. It will receive an additional $22 per ride in 2024, according to its contract.

‘They left him’

Wheels is a ride-sharing service. That means people are given a window when they will be picked up and dropped off. Multiple people are in the van or on the smaller Wheels buses.

To get Wheels services, there is an application process. A medical provider must attest the person has a disability that makes it more difficult for them to ride Lextran buses.

 

Rides are $1.60 or $2.00 depending on the location. Lextran uses approximately $2 million in federal funding to offset the cost, Elliott said.

Forsythe-Seward and others who work with people with disabilities said Red Cross was not perfect. It struggled to get people to places on time when it started in the early 2000s. Red Cross had decided by 2021 to leave the paratransit business and its on-time rate suffered in 2021 and 2022, according to documents obtained by the newspaper.

Forsythe-Seward said she understands there can be problems with finding drivers. It’s happened before. But the problems with Wheels means her clients can struggle to keep a job.

One client recently called Bluegrass staff after he was left at his job at The Summit on Nicholasville Road at 9 p.m. with no ride home.

“They left him,” Forsythe-Seward said. That client was able to communicate and advocate for himself.

Not everyone with a disability can do so.

A few months ago, a client with Down Syndrome was dropped off at the Employment Solutions campus on Centre Parkway. He didn’t know to which Employment Solutions division he was supposed to go.

“A staff member found him wandering around,” Forsythe-Seward said. “She was about to call the police.”

The Wheels drivers are supposed to walk clients to the door. Leaving people in places where they don’t know where they are supposed to go is dangerous, she said.

“This is a very vulnerable population,” she said.

Just recently, a client was in the lobby of Bluegrass Career Services for eight hours. Why?

She was waiting on Wheels.

Forsythe-Seward and her staff have also taken clients Ryan Brooks and Esperita Caise home multiple times over the past year after they found them waiting outside for Wheels after Bluegrass Career Services had closed for the day.

Brooks said he sometimes has to wait in a lobby or break room for two hours after his work shift ends for Wheels transportation.

“Sometimes the employers are nice. They know why I’m there,” Brooks said.

Forsythe-Seward said she feels some of her clients have lost jobs because transportation became an issue.

Caise said she also doesn’t like being late and hates relying on staff like Forsythe-Seward to make sure she can get to where she needs to be.

“They’ve got their own lives,” Caise said.

Brooks and Caise said they can’t plan on multiple errands in one day because there is no guarantee they can get there on time. A trip to the grocery store can take half a day, they said.

Neither can afford to use ride-sharing services like Lyft or Uber, they said.

No help from drivers

Theresa Thomas, executive director of Bluegrass Council of the Blind, said not only have on-time rates plummeted but many disabled people are struggling with new rules that restrict how many bags a disabled person can carry on Wheels and what drivers will do to help those with disabilities.

Moreover, blind people typically hold on to the driver to get in and out of Wheels.

Bluegrass Council of the Blind gives clients pantry staples to help with grocery shopping, an errand that is particularly daunting for people with no sight or limited vision. Thomas has floated buying small collapsible shopping trolleys to make it easier for her clients to get groceries on a Wheels van or bus without running afoul of the rules.

However, she’s heard nothing back.

Elliott, of Lextran, said carts are allowed if there is room on the van or bus.

“It is asked that when someone brings a cart, they alert the reservationist when scheduling to ensure there is sufficient space in the vehicle,” Elliott said.

Recently Thomas had a blind client, who also uses a walker, almost stranded due to Wheels staff refusing to help her. The woman had purchased a large, plastic tub and put her grocery bags in it, but the driver said it was not allowed. The woman didn’t know what to do.

Some strangers who were walking by happened to see the incident and paid for the woman to take a ride-share home, Thomas said.

The city’s transportation program for the disabled shouldn’t be dependent on the whims or goodwill of strangers. The program is subsidized through tax dollars. It helps keep people with disabilities in the community and independent, Thomas said.

“I would like to be able to have an option for transportation that works for me and other citizens in my same position,” Thomas said.


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