Changes Coming for HRT Paratransit Service

By Dave Forster
The Virginian-Pilot
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NORFOLK

Transit service for the region's disabled riders is getting an overhaul.

Hampton Roads Transit will soon replace its fleet of paratransit vans and sedans, and on Thursday, the commissioners who oversee the agency voted to divide delivery of the service between two providers, a move that staff members believe will improve the experience for customers.

Under the terms of new contracts totaling $38.5 million over five years, HRT's existing paratransit provider, MV Transportation Inc., will continue to provide van and sedan paratransit service, but it will no longer handle calls from customers requesting a ride.

Call-center duties will be taken over by First Transit, a company headquartered in Cincinnati that provides similar services in Portland, Ore., and San Diego, according to HRT.

The contracts, which include a base period of three years and two optional years, require First Transit to establish a presence in Hampton Roads and MV Transportation to provide 30 new sedans.

In the meantime, HRT is purchasing 76 new vans at a cost of about $4.3 million, said Keith Johnson, the agency's paratransit manager. Those vehicles are expected to arrive in January and February.

The new vehicles will replace a fleet of 47 sedans and 59 vans, the latter of which were not all equipped with a lift, Johnson said.

Paratransit user Donald Fennell predicted the new vehicles alone will eliminate half the complaints from passengers. Fennell, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said the current vans are old, worn and have equipment problems, such as broken seat belts.

Fennell, a Newport News resident and chairman of a committee that advises HRT on paratransit service, read a report that mentioned some users have been on hold for more than an hour when trying to schedule a ride.

He said later that he expected HRT's decision to hand off call-center duties to another company will help address that problem.

HRT's paratransit service costs $3 per one-way ride and is federally mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are about 5,600 eligible users, of which about 2,200 used the service in September. There have been about 81,000 trips recorded in the first three months of this fiscal year, an increase of about 3,000 compared with the same period last year, according to HRT.

In other action Thursday, HRT staff unveiled an emergency snow route plan for its bus service. The agency moved to create the plan after a heavy snowfall in January prompted it to suspend service for three days. Part of the problem was caused by plows that created barriers of snow in front of stops.

HRT's snow plan includes a limited number of routes that the agency developed in coordination with staff from each of HRT's six member cities. The routes follow main roads and are intended to keep some service going, including access to all hospitals in HRT's member cities.

The agency will post snowflake signs on designated routes to mark them for users.

HRT President and CEO William Harrell said a storm could be so bad as to halt service even on the snow routes for a time, if those roads haven't been plowed, "but this will get us up and running much faster than before."

Dave Forster, 757-222-5005, dave.forster@pilotonline.com