Miami-Dade County Paratransit Comes To A Dead End: So Where Does that Leave You? Stranded? Isolated?

In Columns, Just My Bellybutton, Opinion by Nathasha Alvarez

You would never think that there could be so much drama and suspense in transporting the disabled but in Miami, Florida it’s all that and more! Paratransit in Miami, Florida is operated by ATS, a company hired by the county to route the trips, take reservations and late vehicle calls. Under ATS are several transportation companies transporting clients based on their home address.

For example, the area where I live is serviced by the company, Zuni Transportation. I would make my phone call to reserve next day service before 5 pm. Then, Zuni would be given my trip and they would be the only ones to transport me anywhere in Miami Dade County, which is a pretty big county for $3.00 each way. This was a great concept because the drivers got to know the passengers and vice versa. The familiarity helped clients who for whatever reason felt hesitant to ride with a stranger.

Almost three years ago, ATS found out that one of its managers, Tesla Narvaez, was booking fraudulent trips and in cahoots with other drivers. Here is the kicker, she was also a client who used the service since she needed a wheelchair to get around. Just goes to show that even the disabled can be corrupted. After ATS found out, they reported it with signed confessions.

The next thing you know, the county is in an uproar and they do an investigation which seems absolutely logical and people get arrested, including Tesla Narvaez. However, the part that doesn’t sit well with me is the way the county is handling future transportation for the disabled.  The contract with ATS will end in March and instead of having open bids for a new contract which was put together by a group of people including myself, the county has decided that only certain companies can talk to them about gaining the new contract. Is that legal? Is it ethical? I don’t think so.

Turns out one of the companies is MV Transportation. That is another curve down this slippery road. I did some research on this company and you can too, by googling news reports on them. They seem to make some type of headlines that would make a Miami Paratransit passenger want to stay home if MV were handling the trip. Is the county concerned for our safety or saving a few bucks?

If that isn’t enough, there is a terrible rumor that people will have to call the county hotline 3-1-1 to make their trips.

Have you seen the number of calls logged in?

Incoming Calls
(from October 1 -September 31)

  • FY 06-07 – 1.9 million calls
  • FY 05-06 – 1.5 million calls
  • FY 04-05 – 800,000 calls

Miami Dade County Paratransit was one of the best if not the best transportation service for people with disabilities based on my research several years ago. I researched companies all over the United States including Hawaii and nothing compared to the service in Miami. Our hours of operation were better, hours to make reservation and late vehicle calls were more convenient and overall the service covered more land and more people than any other service in the country. With so much to be proud of, the county now wants to hand over reservations to a call center that handles dead animal pick ups. Will I be riding with a dead German Shepard in order to save the county gas?

But let’s look at the other side of the coin, in all of my 20 years riding Miami’s Paratransit service, ATS has been the most accommodating company! Previous companies would turn a blind eye and a deaf ear regarding our complaints and suggestions to improve its service. For example, when Zuni Transportation first started out, there was much to be said for it but Jorge Azor, one of the owners, took people’s suggestions and complaints very seriously and today it is one of the best transportation companies around.

The rest of the companies under ATS have also improved throughout the years and have made a comfortable bond with its riders.  In fact, this past month at the county meeting, the provider and the clients were fighting on the same side. As passengers, we want to keep ATS!

Yes, a few rotten apples have left a nasty taste in our mouth but should we get rid of the goods ones altogether? If we did that in every company or organization, we would never have any hospitals, schools or governments. The county is taking this fraudulent situation to change the system in their favor and against the very people it’s supposed to help: the disabled.

Rumor has it that people who might be getting laid off in the county will be transferred to the call center to do what ATS’s experienced staff can do and for less money then what the county will be paying its employees. Does that sound reasonable? Does it even sound responsible? Did I forget to mention that ATS employs numerous people with physical disabilities that have been with the company for more than 10 years? Where will they go to get another job? All that training to get excellent service will be taken away because of the actions of a few?

Other rumors have it that the hours of service will be greatly reduced. At the moment, I can book by 5pm for anytime of the day or night. Do you have any idea how liberating that is for the disabled?

It finally gives us the opportunity to live like the able bodied community. We can go to dance clubs, parties, festivals, visit relatives during the holidays, go to school, get jobs without having to worry about the last pick up or if it is on a holiday or if they are even open during those hours.

I hear from my other friends in other cities who use similar services and they tell me that they can’t go out on certain days or certain hours and that they have to book trips one week in advance and even then they might be told that no more reservations will be accepted. What is that? Sounds like a communist thing to me.

Instead of the county making a U-turn back into the days of terrible routing, nasty vehicles, rude service and the passenger’s urge to no longer want to take trips, they should have an open bid for the new contract, allow ATS to bid in the RFP, and ensure that the county’s reputation of giving the best transportation service to the disabled in the country stays as their number one priority. Don’t allow the actions of a few to ruin the lives of thousands!