OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – Getting around town is not an easy task for people with disabilities. Many who are not able to use public transit rely on paratransit bus service. In the Bay Area much of it is provided, at taxpayer expense, by a private company with a terrible reputation for poor service.
After KPIX 5 first exposed the problems, there was a flood of emails and calls from viewers who had equally bad stories to tell.
Zakk Donald’s home in Alameda is ten miles from his day program for special needs adults in Berkeley. But his ride on East Bay Paratransit often takes close to two hours, and sometimes a lot more.
“He’s been on the bus for three to four hours at a time,” said his mother Jean Donald.
She contacted KPIX after seeing our story about Jonathan Tomasini’s two to three hour commute ordeals.
We put a tracker in Jonathan’s backpack for two months and discovered buses taking him on huge detours before dropping him off at home.
Donald keeps a tracker on her son, too. She says Zakk’s been all the way south to Fremont and north, as far away as Richmond. That three-hour ride caused him to be incontinent.
“He said, ‘mom I am sorry,’ and I felt so bad because he was ashamed of himself,” said Donald. “You work hard to help them have their independence, and for him to be ashamed of something that he didn’t have control over, it was really very difficult.”
Zakk and Jonathan are not alone. Many other families with disabled parents, siblings and children contacted us following that first report. So, KPIX gathered them together for a group interview.
Denise Music came to talk about her daughter Kara. “My daughter goes home to San Leandro and she ends up in Fremont,” said Music.
Beth Pao spoke out for her 98-year-old mother. “She has a standing order every Thursday from 11am to 11:30am [for] pick-up from a certain place in Chinatown going home,” said Pao. “I would say probably more than half the time she would have to wait beyond the half-hour pickup window.”
Dana Utz told us he recently waited over an hour for a bus that turned out to be waiting for him just around the corner. “They are just so antiquated on keeping the riders updated on the status of a ride,” said Utz.
Thoette Moore’s daughter Thoette Junior even got delivered to the wrong house. “They took her somewhere else, to another child’s house and that woman came out and said ‘Who is this?’” said Moore.
Complaints, this group told KPIX, go nowhere.
“You’re talking to a robot. The same line the same question week after week,” said Pao.
“I think if you are more vocal they will arrive on time, but then it starts to taper off. Then it’s one hour, then 2 hours,” said Maureen Gilhooly, whose son Ian is paraplegic and uses a motorized wheelchair.
Diana Walizada and her husband Hamid have been so frustrated with East Bay Paratransit, they’ve switched to another small provider that they say isn’t much better.
“It’s a very scary thing for us because Kelly is non-verbal. If she is not home by a certain time where is she? And she can’t tell us what happened,” said Walizada.
“I am angry,” said Donna Glover. “This is our money. This is public dollars. Very taxpaying citizen of Alameda, Contra Costa County and the State of California, this is where the money comes from, gas tax, county measures, all of that is public dollars. And it is given off to a for-profit company.”
That for-profit company is Transdev, a private multi-national corporation. AC Transit pays 69 percent of the annual $43 million cost; BART covers the remaining 31 percent.
When asked what they think of when they hear that it’s a private company they were frustrated.
“Well there’s a huge disconnect. You are filing your complaint with this private contractor, but you don’t know if the eyes and ears of the decision-makers are hearing your complaint,” said Gilhooly.
“We have standards that we strive to meet each and every day,” East Bay Paratransit’s General Manager Jay Jeter told KPIX in an earlier interview. “We try to build the route so that it’s safe, and it’s comfortable for our passengers, and we make it so that it’s efficient, so that people can get to locations as quickly as we can get them,” said Jeter.
But the group isn’t buying it.
“I was blown away by the interview you did with the manager who acted like this was the first time he was hearing about this and he was going to look into it. Well, obviously that is not true,” said Jonathan’s father David Tomasini.
Though his son is now getting home in record time Tomasini still came to support the others.
“They seem to have no incentive to address this seriously, Hopefully a program like this will light a fire,” said Tomasini.
Back in Alameda, Zakk Donald is now on the fast-track home after KPIX alerted East Bay Paratransit. But how long will it last? And how many other families may be getting the short end of the stick?
“I would be surprised if it lasts,” said Jean Donald. “Because I mean the problems are still there. I think it’s really the invisible population, the elderly the disabled, and nobody cares, until it’s them.”
KPIX reached out to AC Transit and BART for comment, since their agencies are paying for the service. They both referred us back to Transdev. So far, no one is acknowledging an oversight role.