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Westmoreland Transit reports senior's shared ride program has improved

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Officials say the Westmoreland County Transit Authority's Senior Shared Ride service is smoothing out, though some participants still report bumps in the road.

The program, which offers low-fare, PennDOT-subsidized cab rides to senior citizens, was consolidated under the transit authority in July.

Customers now schedule trips through the authority's central office, rather than dealing directly with the taxi companies as they had in the past.

At first, customers reported lengthy waits on the phone when trying to schedule trips and in person when pickups were delayed or missed altogether.

“We've made a lot of progress,” said Larry Morris, the authority's executive director. “The calling-in times are much, much improved.”

In addition to working out the bugs with a new dispatching system, the authority this fall also began installing computers in all of the cabs to dispatch and track trips.

Although the authority believes the computers will improve service in the long run, it led to another round of adjustments.

“Every day we seem to be getting better and people are more comfortable with it,” he added. “We've seen some improvement, and I think we'll see more.”

“The first week or so, it was absolutely nuts,” said Julia Martin, president and owner of Byers Taxi Service in Vandergrift. Byers is the authority's service provider for much of the Alle-Kiski Valley's portion of Westmoreland County.

“You're trying to learn something and make it work at the same time,” Martin said. “Things have come a long way since we first went live (with the new computers) on Sept. 30. Each day gets a little bit better. We think we've got most of the bugs.”

Computer solves, creates problems

Martin said the centralization and computerization of the dispatching process has at least initially taken away some of the flexibility Byers and its customers once had.

“We're just so (used to) dealing with people. We've been so much more people-oriented,” she said. “The new program is different. The computer doesn't care. It's a big adjustment for the customers and for us.”

Martin said the computer estimates times for how long a pickup and a trip should take.

But it doesn't yet factor in additional time to help someone who uses a wheelchair or to travel through rush-hour traffic on Route 28.

Martin said the system is supposed to “learn” these factors over time.

“The more it's used, the smarter it will be and know how to schedule better,” she said. “The more data it collects, the more it knows to build that in.”

Another factor they've had to adjust to is using the authority's centralized dispatching office rather than handling everything in house.

Riders report mixed results

Byers' customers were accustomed to scheduling a trip and then just calling Byers' dispatchers when they finished an appointment and wanted to return home.

But Martin said the new system wants a return trip already scheduled in the system — which can lead to problems when appointments run long or finish early.

That's one of Barbara Miller's concerns. The Aliquippa woman helps her aunt, Patricia Lorent, 67, of Vandergrift, schedule trips through the shared-ride service.

Miller said Lorent often must be ready to leave her home an hour before an appointment — even for those just minutes from her home. Then the driver has returned to pick her up before an appointment is over.

Lorent then must call to reschedule her trip home, which often leads to long waits.

“I get tired of waiting,” said Lorent, who sometimes can ask her son to pick her up. “It's only two blocks away (from her home), but I can't walk there.”

“It's not the way it should be working,” Miller said.

Miller also complained that she still remains on hold for extended periods of time when she tries to call and schedule Lorent's trips.

“Who, every day, has 20 minutes to wait?” Miller asked. “Before, it was right away.”

Meanwhile, Chris Schubert of Lower Burrell said her 91-year-old mother-in-law is experiencing much better service than when the consolidation began.

Schubert said her mother-in-law, who lives in New Kensington, is able to call just once and schedule regular standing trips, rather than calling and scheduling each individual trip. That has minimized the time spent on hold.

Additionally, Schubert said they haven't had the same experience with extremely early pickups or long waits for a return trip.

“They're pretty much on time within a couple minutes. It's a far cry from what it was,” Schubert said. “We're very pleased. I think it's been great. They've really turned around dramatically.”

Both Schubert and Miller said they were concerned how the problems may impact Byers' business.

“I felt bad for them during this whole thing,” Schubert said.

Martin acknowledged that ridership is down, but said she'd isn't too concerned about the impact on her business.

“We do have some more people using the regular taxi service that have gotten fed up with trying to call Greensburg,” she said. “From over the years, you kind of see cycles in ridership go up and down. It fluctuates.”

“The folks at Byers have been real cooperative,” Morris said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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