Seniors struggle with changes in van service

By: Sara Kandel | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published November 14, 2012

 Local SMART driver Ray Koolwick, of Warren, looks over his schedule for the day while waiting for a rider.

Local SMART driver Ray Koolwick, of Warren, looks over his schedule for the day while waiting for a rider.

Photo by Deb Jacques

ROSEVILLE — It’s been about a month and a half since the Recreational Authority of Roseville and Eastpointe took over SMART van services for the two cities, and a group of seniors is sharing their criticism of it.

They’re seated around a table at the back of a room in the recreation center, knitting while they talk, taking turns sharing their experiences and grievances with the service — each city used to run the vans independently, but Oct. 1 the services were consolidated under the rec authority — and these Eastpointe seniors aren’t happy with the changes that have taken place since the consolidation.

Two rooms down, authority Director Tony Lipinski is talking to the authority’s SMART van coordinator, Christine McCullum, about some of the same things. He recently had a chance to talk with the seniors about issues with the van service, and he’s trying to find ways to address some of the issues that came up.

“One of the ladies I spoke with said she isn’t used to carrying dollar bills on her, and she asked if we have a fare punch card,” Lipinski said. “We should find a way to implement those. Maybe they could prepay for them up front.”

Eastpointe previously did not charge for use of the van service. Under the authority, there is a $1 fare. The ladies in the knitting circle question the need for a fare.

“Even though Eastpointe SMART funds were sufficient for Eastpointe’s residents’ needs and a well-oiled system was in place, SMART Roseville is determined to sabotage this service in every possible way,” said Lori Steiger, a 59-year-old Eastpointe resident. “If we provided that free in Eastpointe, why can’t they do it here? We were never told that that fare would be part of the deal, and they never explained why it was needed.”

Lipinski explains the funds are a safety net to protect service in the future.

“The municipal and community credits that we receive from SMART have been reduced,” Lipinski said. “We charge the $1 because we want to make sure the community van program continues. It all goes back into the program.”

Charging a fare for the service isn’t uncommon. Fred Barbret, the Macomb County community SMART coordinator, said lots of communities do it.

“Communities can have their own fare structure, they can provide rides by donation or they can provide the service for free,” Barbret said. “The only thing they can’t do is charge more than our fare structure, which on average ranges from $1-4 per for general-fare riders. Fares cover operating expenses, such as driver wages, and it is common for communities to charge fares, but it is also common for communities not to charge fares.”

The seniors say the $1 fare isn’t the reason they’re so unhappy with the new service, though.

“First of all, when you call, you can’t get through,” said Joann Plocinik, a 74-year-old Eastpointe resident. “And when you do, they’re rude.”

Plocinik said her real issue with the bus system started when she called to schedule a pickup for a 9:30 a.m. doctor’s appointment.

“They said, ‘OK we’ll pick you up at 9 a.m. and be back to get you at 10 a.m.’”

Plocinik said she was told that if she wasn’t ready at 10 a.m., the bus would leave and come back at another time.

“I said, ‘Will I be sitting there all day?’ and they said, ‘Well, we’ll do the best we can.’”

The new system of organization for the expanded service area requires riders to schedule drop-off and pickup times.

“When they were done with their appointment, they would call the driver and he would get back to pick them up as soon as possible,” Lipinski explained of the Eastpointe system.

They request pickup times to aid in the scheduling process and because many doctor’s offices have complained, saying they do not have time to always notify a bus driver when seniors are ready to be picked up.

“If the van goes to pick them up and they aren’t ready, and they talk to the doctor’s office and they say they’ll only be another five or 10 minutes, the driver will wait, but if not, they’ll just go on to their next scheduled pickup and get them situated and return when they are done,” McCullum said.

As for the busy phone lines, she said that’s an issue in the process of getting cleared up.

“Right now I don’t have phones at my desk, and we have two lines rolling in to two separate places, but the city just got a new phone carrier and we are in the process of streamlining that scheduling process so it should be improving in the next few weeks. And if they call and get a busy signal, it might just be because both lines are occupied with other callers, and it’s just me doing the scheduling right now,” McCullum said.

As for the complaint of rude service, Lipinski said they take customer service very seriously.

“Our staff will try to help everybody, even when calls come in for other departments,” Lipinski said. “If we do not know an answer, they will try to find the answer or try to direct a person to somebody who does. The staff is sensitive to customer needs, but we also have to place limits as to when calls for the van service can come in to schedule so we can organize for the following day.”

Still, he said, all suggestions are wanted. He’s already taken a few — when they first consolidated the service, group rides to the rec center weren’t available.

“We thought that was only for special occasions, so initially we didn’t have that in there, but we do now,” Lipinski said. “If there is some area where we are not meeting their transportation needs, we will look at that and try to accommodate.”

“This is an ongoing program and we are going to evaluate the program as we go to try and service the seniors as best as possible, but we also want to be able to service everybody — and not just a select few — and make it the best program possible.”