PSTA directors approve new contracts for paratransit service

The PSTA logo will replace Care Ride on vans purchased for use by First Transit Inc. when it takes over wheelchair service on July 1.

ST. PETERSBURG — Starting July 1, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority riders who use paratransit services may notice some changes. Care Ride, which has provided the service since 2008, is closing.

After a lengthy discussion Feb. 24, PSTA Board of Directors approved by a vote of 13-2 two new 10-year contracts to provide service to people who cannot use the regular bus system. Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers voted no as did citizen-representative Vince Cocks.

The most expensive contract is with First Transit Inc., which will provide 100% of the service for wheelchair riders, for a not-to-exceed amount of $101 million over 10 years, including an initial five year period with a five-year option.

The second contract with Bay Area Metro is structured the same as the one with First Transit in the amount of $12 million for 10 years. Bay Area Metro will provide ambulatory service with 30% coming from United Taxi or Yellow Cab and the remaining through a subcontractor, UZURV, which is a service much like Uber or Lyft that specializes in paratransit.

Cocks and Flowers both had issues with the use of subcontractors because they are not employees and the level of pay and benefits is not certain. They also questioned whether they would have adequate vehicles and provide professional service.

Nicholas Cambas, owner of Bay Area Metro, assured directors the service would be done professionally. He said UZURV drivers were focused on providing service that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He said they would be using new vehicles offering routed and scheduled service.

“We’re committed to having a fresh fleet for service, not some off the shelf taxi service,” he said.

Brad Miller, PSTA CEO, said by contract subcontractors had to use a certain quality of vehicle, which would be inspected yearly.

Miller pointed out that neither of the new contracts was exclusive, so additional service could be sought if needed. In addition, nothing prevents changes being made to the new contracts, which staff expects to require some tweaking over time.

Al Burns, director of procurement, said six proposals had been received to provide the service; however, one did not provide the proper paperwork. Five were evaluated and all used subcontractors to some extent to provide ambulatory rides. Ambulatory means a person is able to walk to the vehicle as opposed to those in a wheelchair.

Miller said the only way to get a choice that did not include subcontractors was to put the matter back out to bid; however, he cautioned that time was of the essence.

When Care Ride, which is owned by BayCare Health Systems, informed PSTA about its decision to close last year, a new contract was negotiated to continue service while PSTA looked for another provider.

PSTA is required under the ADA to provide paratransit services. It provides about 175,000 trips a year using wheelchair accessible vehicles and about 120,000 using sedans for ambulatory clients. There are almost 12,000 eligible residents in the county that qualify for services.

The new 10-year contracts allow First Transit and Bay Area Metro the ability to spread out start-up costs over several years. They are buying equipment from Care Ride and have agreed to interview existing Care Ride employees and hire them when possible.

The new service will be more expensive. Everyone agreed that Care Ride had given PSTA a good price. Miller said the increase in cost wasn’t unexpected and the cost would have gone up some under the contract with Care Ride.

Debbie Leous, chief financial officer, said because PSTA “saw it coming” budget adjustments had been made and the new cost was sustainable. She said the county’s population was getting older and there were more riders, which cost more.

She said the new contracts allow PSTA to be in control of the service.

James Bradford, chief operating officer, said during contract negotiations staff had lowered the cost by $17 million. Concessions include allowing the provider to bill by the hour instead of per trip, and PSTA will purchase the fuel.

Bonnie Epstein, director of Mobility Services, said the paratransit call center would be moving to PSTA on July 1. She expects to bring a recommendation for software to the board in April. The software will be used for scheduling.

Miller told directors that staff had considered bringing the service in-house but in the end decided that wasn’t the best option.

After some discussion with suggestions to send the matter back to committee or even out for a rebid, Chair Pat Gerard said since all the proposals received for the service had the same structure, sending the matter out for new proposals wasn’t likely to get anything different.

“There’s not time to do that,” she said.

Oldsmar Councilmember Dan Saracki agreed. He is a member of the Finance Committee and said the contracts had been discussed for two hours. He and others suggested that directors rely on the work staff had done.

“Staff has done an amazing job,” Saracki said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.