RideChoice program not a hit with some Surprise riders so far

By Jason StoneINDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA

Valley Metro’s RideChoice program needs to get off the shoulder and into the fast lane if it wants to keep Surprise riders happy.

That’s the message some city leaders and angry residents had for the regional transportation provider during an hour-long debate over the new service for low-income and handicapped riders at the March 19 Surprise City Council regular meeting.

“It’s a system that needs to be repaired,” Vice Mayor Roland Winters said. “If I had time to read you all the emails I’ve gotten and relate to all the phone calls I’ve gotten, we would be here all night.”

The city moved to the new service in December, replacing the old Dial-a-Ride/Paratransit model for one more like the current ride-sharing trends with Uber and Lyft. With the way the program is set up, it is costing Surprise taxpayers about $400,000 to subsidize.

But the half-dozen or so cab companies that Valley Metro’s contractor, ALC, has hired for the service isn’t getting high marks from low-income and handicapped residents who need the service to get to doctor’s appointments and work.

“Like every other system previously, they say how great this is going to be and how much better this is going to be,” Mr. Winters said. “I’m not an expert in that field. All I know is we need to fix the problem.”

Short-circuit start

Mr. Winters isn’t the only leader wanting answers.

“This is a new program and (Phoenix) and Valley Metro has experienced a number of changes in their operation over the last couple of years,” said David Kohlbeck, Surprise’s public works business manager who worked on the deal. “I think has thrown a lot of confusion into the mix here.”

Complaints about the service are mainly coming from riders, who like Mr. Winters, get around on a wheelchair.

They said problems include:

  • Cab companies sending a Toyota Prius, instead of a wheelchair-accessible car when one is ordered.
  • Drivers showing up late 90 minutes or more when a ride is ordered.
  • Return rides sometimes never show up at all, leaving passengers stranded.

“The biggest struggle is having wheelchairs and wheelchair providers in the Northwest Valley,” Kohlbeck said. “We continue to work with both Valley Metro and ALC … to get them to try to build that market.”

Personal hardships

Pamela Yaeger is one person looking for changes. The Surprise resident uses a wheelchair because of severe arthritis, COPD and cardiac issues. To make matters worse, she suffered a brain stem stroke in November and recently broke her leg in a fall.

She used the previous Paratransit program, but said it’s been nothing but trouble since the service changed in December.

“Failure is the huge word,” said Yaeger, who claims she has had to wait up to four hours for a scheduled ride and has more than once had to ride her scooter home because a return ride never showed up.

Mr. Kohlbeck said one of the problems in Surprise is it has a higher percentage of users who need wheelchair access. He said about 20 percent of RideChoice passengers typically use wheelchairs, but in Surprise that percentage is around 30 percent.

“Being a disabled person at this point, it’s been really eye-opening to me,” said Surprise Farms resident Michael Ellison, who spoke to the Council.

Ellison said he has been using a wheelchair for four years as he recovers from college football injuries to his knees and hip. He said he relies on RideChoice trips to get him around the city when he needs to be there.

District 4 Councilmember Ken Remley urged Kohlbeck to put more pressure on Valley Metro and the contractor to fix the problem.

“We’ve got to stomp our feet and bang on the table or do something to where these folks wake up to the fact that we’re not happy with what’s going on,” Mr. Remley said. “We just have to let them know that.”

Island is the theme

Surprise is the only West Valley city that uses the Ride Share Service. All of the others – Chandler, Fountain Hills, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe – are on the east side.

El Mirage uses Northwest Valley Connect for its residents and supplements it with some Valley Metro ADA Paratransit service, the old system Surprise used.

“Unfortunately, Northwest Connect is relatively small, and they really can’t handle the volume of trips,” Mr. Kohlbeck said.

Glendale and Peoria have their own paratransit systems that are like the old Dial-A-Ride, where passengers call to order one.

Goodyear and Avondale provide regional ADA services and local paratransit service with a contract through city of Phoenix.

Youngtown uses the regional ADA service.

“One of our problems now is we’re sort of an island out here trying to get service,” said District 6 Councilman Chris Judd, who serves the southeastern section of the city.

The ironic part of the service is ridership is actually way up with the new program. Mr. Kohlbeck said between last July and November on the old service, about 5,400 trips were completed. In the first two months of the RideChoice program, about 5,300 trips were made.

How it works

As a Surprise RideChoice participant, users can take up to 20 trips per month for $3 each up to eight miles. Any additional mile is $2 extra.

To be eligible for one of the rides, residents must apply Surprise Human Service and Community Vitality Department to determine eligibility. Eligibility includes an application process to determine income and billing address.

Users must earn below 50 percent of the median income for Maricopa County residents to be eligible, and they must re-apply for it annually. That includes sending in a tax return from the previous year.

For a household of one, that income is $23,200 a year. For homes with four people, the maximum bar raises to $33,100.

Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, on email at jstone@newszap.com or on Twitter at @thestonecave.


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