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Macomb Township

September 3, 2013

Seniors express dissatisfaction with new transportation service

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The Board of Trustees’ chambers were packed with disgruntled residents on Aug. 28 — mostly seniors who came to share their disappointment about the board’s recent decision to turn its Dial-A-Ride transportation service over to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART).

More than a dozen people came up to speak during the public comment portion of the board’s regular meeting. Nearly all of them were upset about the changes to the Dial-A-Ride program, which were approved by the board on Aug. 14 and went into effect on Aug. 20. The new agreement shifted the management of the program from the Parks and Recreation Department to SMART, laying off all eight Dial-A-Ride drivers in the process.

Residents step up to the microphone
Mary Dye, a Macomb Township resident for more than 40 years, told the board that in the past, she regularly used Dial-A-Ride to visit her husband at the Martha T. Berry Medical Care Facility in Mount Clemens. But about a week before the meeting when she called to schedule a ride, she was informed that the service was no longer available.

“That was it; nothing else other than that. No reason as to why the program was terminated,” she said, “whether it was due to a lack of funding or a lack of people in this township that care enough to take care of us seniors. One day, you’re all going to be in our boat. You’re not going to be able to drive, and then you’re going to have to find your own way around as best you can. I need this service because I can’t get to see my husband. … I felt perfectly safe riding on your service, and I’m going to miss it very deeply. I’m hoping that you will reconsider and bring it back.”

Officials from the township and SMART have repeatedly stated that Dial-A-Ride had the lowest ridership of any similar transportation service in Macomb County. But according to resident Wendy Ouvry, the need for Dial-A-Ride has been on the rise, as the service provided 6,291 rides in 2011, a 48 percent increase from 2010. Ouvry, a wheelchair user, said that she relied on Dial-A-Ride to visit her mother in an assisted living facility to help feed her.

“There are so many times that we try to call (Dial-A-Ride), but they’re so busy that they put us on a waiting list to see if they can wiggle us in for a ride,” she said. “When (my mother) was a little more well and she lived at home in St. Clair Shores, we took the SMART bus, and it would take us through three different cities before we could ever get home. It took us hours to ride around. So this (new program) will never get me there on time to get her fed.”

Dan Petkoff was a Dial-A-Ride driver for eight years but left the program last November due to health reasons. He reminded the board that many of the seniors in attendance were in poor health and very frail, needing the assistance of a walker or cane just to make it up to the microphone. Some of them were nearly in tears as they addressed the board.

“These people out here are my friends,” Petkoff said. “You look at all these senior citizens, and they’ve got cancer; they’re blind. Many of them are fighting for their lives. And you have the audacity to send them a letter saying that the program is done? Have you ever heard of transition? You transition people into these kinds of things; you don’t drop a bomb on them like that. These are precious human beings, and … I think you’ve done them all a terrible disservice.”

For resident Walter Piotrowski, the Dial-A-Ride program had become a “lifeline” that he and other seniors used to get to medical appointments, grocery stores, shopping malls, recreation facilities and other destinations.

“I would like to take the time to thank not only the seniors, but also the thoughtful younger generation who recognized the need for a versatile and flexible transportation system,” he said. “We have substantially benefited from the independence gained (by Dial-A-Ride). The dispatchers and bus drivers were always courteous and considerate. … I would like to recommend that you reconsider transferring Dial-A-Ride to SMART.”

New system features several changes
Officials from the township and SMART believe that many of the residents in attendance were either uninformed or misinformed. Despite all the concerns that Dial-A-Ride was coming to an end, they insisted that the new program under SMART would be a significant improvement over the old one.

Last November, the Macomb Township Board of Trustees transferred the responsibility of operating Dial-A-Ride from the township supervisor’s office to the Parks and Recreation Department. Through SMART grants, the board also expanded Dial-A-Ride to develop a fixed route for special-needs students from the Macomb Academy in Clinton Township, in addition to providing rides for seniors and disabled residents.

According to Fred Barbret, Macomb Community Ombudsperson for SMART, two of the biggest problems of the old Dial-A-Ride system have now been resolved. Many township residents had complained that the service would not drive them outside the township borders; however, the new program will take them to any destination within a 10-mile radius of their pick-up/drop-off location. The other common criticism was in regard to the program’s limited hours, which previously ran only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; the new system, meanwhile, will double those hours to operate every weekday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Those improvements will likely be embraced by Dial-A-Ride users, but another change with the program might not prove so popular. While the previous service was free for township residents, there will be a small fee associated with the new one. As Barbret explained, there will be a “transition period” of a few months in which there will be no charge for trips within the township and a $1 charge for trips outside the township. After that transition period is over, though, all riders will pay the standard $1 SMART fee for all trips, regardless of distance.

The Dial-A-Ride name has also been scrapped, Barbret said, as the program will simply be absorbed into SMART’s existing Small Bus Connector service. Medical trip reservations can be made up to six days in advance, while general trip reservations can be made up to two days in advance. All rides are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations must be received by 4 p.m. one day before the service is needed.

The SMART Connector program was originally intended to begin on Sept. 3, but according to Parks and Recreation Director Sal DiCaro, it was moved forward by two weeks to Aug. 20 out of necessity. DiCaro explained that the township’s Dial-A-Ride bus drivers were laid off earlier than expected after they allegedly began spreading misinformation about the new service to their riders. He also acknowledged that because of the overnight transition to SMART, there would be some “hiccups” along the way.

As DiCaro stated at the board meeting, “I understand where the seniors are coming from … but the fact remains that this is the smallest used program in Macomb County. You can say what you want, but this program was run inefficiently under (former Supervisor Mark) Grabow, plain and simple. We ran a taxi service, and these people all attested to it. Our drivers were the highest paid drivers in the county, and they had the lowest amount of rides that they were giving. … When SMART made a proposal to us, it was going to be what was best for the seniors in this community.”

Grabow was also in attendance at the meeting and took the opportunity to accuse the board members of corruption, and “disgusting” and “deplorable” behavior.

“Sitting here, listening to all of this tonight, every one of you ought to be absolutely ashamed of yourselves,” he said, “because you’re all senior citizens except for two of you. Is this the way you would want to be treated if you didn’t have the money that you have and the capabilities that you have?”

Township officials respond to concerns
In subsequent interviews, Clerk Michael Koehs and Trustee Dino Bucci stated that while they empathize with the concerns of Macomb Township seniors, they believe that the huge gathering on Aug. 28 was orchestrated by Grabow and some former Dial-A-Ride drivers. Bucci called it a “dog and pony show” and a “circus-type atmosphere” intended to make the Board of Trustees look bad and get the seniors on Grabow’s side.

“Individuals should not instill fear and panic in our seniors,” Bucci said. “I have no patience for people who get up there and grandstand and use other people for their own political gains. Obviously, with any new system like this, it takes a little while to work all the bugs out. I’m confident that in time, this will be a positive change for the township. Our sole purpose here is to provide great transportation for all the people who need it.”

Added Koehs, “Obviously, all of that grandstanding was just meant to get these seniors stirred up and feeling afraid. Why would these people be calling up Mark Grabow about this? Someone who no longer works for the township — someone who has nothing to do with this program? It’s a shame to me that that he and his friends are using these poor seniors to advance their own personal agenda.”

Koehs reiterated that township officials knew the SMART Connector program would not be perfect overnight, but he expects that once a handful of issues are addressed, residents will quickly adjust to the changes.

“SMART understands how to run a transportation service,” he said. “They are experts in this field; we are not. We don’t see any big problems with it right now — just day-to-day operational issues that can easily be fixed. This new program has many more benefits than it has shortcomings.”

Both Koehs and Bucci urged seniors to contact SMART or the Parks and Recreation Department with any questions that they have about the new service. Barbret estimated that SMART would have the service operating at full capacity by the time this article went to print. While he admitted that there will be some key differences for longtime Dial-A-Ride users, he said he feels that this type of program is better suited to meet the needs of township residents in the future.

“The township ran Dial-A-Ride like a taxi cab service, but we try to get as many people as possible on each bus to make our service as efficient as possible,” Barbret said. “So, sometimes people will have to spend 15 extra minutes on a bus because there are more people on board trying to get to where they need to go. But we are fully committed to getting this program right. Between now and 2030, there is going to be a huge explosion in the senior population everywhere, so these types of transportation services will see even higher demand.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.