Township says SMART provides better service, but some seniors still unhappy

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published September 25, 2013

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — Complaints about the recent changes to the township’s transportation program for seniors and disabled residents continued to pour in at the latest Board of Trustees meeting, but officials stood by their decision to switch to what they said is a much more efficient system.

Many of the same seniors who spoke at the board’s previous meeting on Aug. 28 were in attendance again on Sept. 11 to address concerns about the township turning over its Dial-A-Ride service to the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) last month.

The new agreement shifted the management of the program away from the township’s Parks and Recreation Department and into the hands of southeast Michigan’s largest provider of public transportation, a move that resulted in all eight Dial-A-Ride bus drivers being laid off. The Dial-A-Ride name was also scrapped, as the program was simply absorbed into SMART’s existing Small Bus Connector service.

Some seniors on Sept. 11 complained about SMART picking them up late — or not at all — for their rides, and the long drive times for them to get back home. Others, like resident Gail Toth, were disappointed that the program is more limited under SMART than it was under Dial-A-Ride.

“Our drivers made sure that, in icy weather, they helped us on and off the van; I even had a driver sweep the snow from my sidewalk one day,” she said. “They assisted us with our wheelchairs and walkers, and they made sure that we were in our door before leaving. … The SMART drivers never leave their seat. I used SMART one time several years ago, and I found their drivers to be intimidating and scary. I feel that it is a second-rate service for the seniors and disabled, (and) not a pleasant experience.”

Toth was one of a few residents who accused the board of deliberately taking services away from Macomb Township seniors. Resident Carl Lundgren felt the same way.

“Starting with the first of the year, Dial-A-Ride went downhill — by design.” he said. “Somebody up there gave the signal to go ahead and scuttle Dial-A-Ride, and they did a good job of it. They made it so unpleasant for people to use Dial-A-Ride that they were looking for something besides Dial-A-Ride, which is not right. … Dial-A-Ride has been in effect for 20 years; it was a good, viable service. We had competent bus drivers who saw to it that we had our needs taken care of, and on time. Right now, I can’t even think straight because you people have done a disservice to my generation.”

Township officials, though, took issue with the perception that they do not care about the seniors of the community. Trustee Dino Bucci pointed out that Macomb Township provides many services for its elderly residents, including a Parks and Recreation Department that is visited by more than 1,000 seniors every week.

“We have never shortchanged our seniors — I’ve been here for 12 years, and we’ve never done that,” he said in a subsequent interview. “We’ve always cared about our seniors and put them as a top priority in this community.”

Several residents were upset over comments that Bucci made about the huge turnout that this issue created at the board’s Aug. 28 meeting. Bucci had alleged in an interview with the Macomb Chronicle that the public response was a “dog and pony show” orchestrated by former township Supervisor Mark Grabow and some of the laid-off Dial-A-Ride drivers.

Grabow denied any involvement with the incident and called Bucci’s comments “absolutely a slap in the face to every (township) resident who has a God-given right to step up here and speak.”

Former Dial-A-Ride driver Jodi Cavalier took the argument even further, blaming the decision to transfer the service to SMART on incompetence by the Parks and Recreation Department and indifference by the board.

“The last board meeting,” she said, “was the direct result of us former Dial-A-Ride drivers helping the seniors of this community voice their opinions on a matter that is important to them. … The recent actions of this board are very transparent: You just don’t care. What you have accomplished, though, is to open a lot of eyes about what your priorities really are. Hopefully, some of these old dogs that you just kicked, along with their families, will remember all of your names during the next election period and make another choice.”

In a subsequent interview, Bucci defended his remarks.

“The ‘dog and pony show’ statement had nothing to do with the concerns of the seniors who got up there and spoke,” he said. “Their concerns were perfectly valid. It was the idea of certain individuals capitalizing on the situation by instilling fear and panic in our seniors — and using that to advance their own personal agenda — that irritated me. Those individuals should be ashamed of themselves.”

Despite some residents’ anxieties about Dial-A-Ride coming to an end, officials from the township and SMART insisted that the new transportation program is a significant improvement over the old one.

Last November, the Board of Trustees transferred the responsibility of operating Dial-A-Ride from the township supervisor’s office to the Parks and Recreation Department. Through SMART grants, the board also expanded Dial-A-Ride to develop a fixed route for special-needs students from the Macomb Academy in Clinton Township.

According to Fred Barbret, Macomb Community Ombudsperson for SMART, two of the biggest problems of the old Dial-A-Ride system have now been resolved. Many township residents had complained that the service would not drive them outside the township borders; however, the new program can take them to any destination within a 10-mile radius of their pick-up/drop-off location. The other common criticism was in regard to the program’s limited hours, which previously ran only from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday; the new system, meanwhile, doubles those hours to operate every weekday from 6 a.m.-6 p.m.

But while the previous service was free for township residents, there is a small fee associated with the new one. As Barbret explained, during these first few months, trips within the township are free of charge, while those outside the township include a $1 charge. After that transition period is over, though, Macomb Township riders will pay the standard $1 SMART fee for all trips, regardless of distance.

The SMART Connector program was originally intended to get underway on Sept. 3, but according to Parks and Recreation Director Sal DiCaro, it was moved forward by two weeks to Aug. 20 out of necessity. DiCaro explained that the township’s Dial-A-Ride bus drivers were laid off earlier than expected after they began spreading misinformation about the new service to their riders.

He also acknowledged that because of the “rushed” transfer to SMART, the 787 township residents currently enrolled in the program encountered some problems during the first few weeks. He insisted, though, that the vast majority of those issues have now been addressed.

“We are in constant contact with the officials from SMART during this transition,” DiCaro said. “Like any new program, it needs time to work out the bugs and make adjustments. SMART’s mission is to transport as many people as possible in an efficient manner. It shouldn’t be a taxi service; it shouldn’t be a limousine service. … Personally, I want to say that the circus-like atmosphere that was here at the last meeting was orchestrated and totally uncalled for. The people behind it were only in it for personal gain, and actually, they were in no position to help our riders.”

DiCaro recommended that any township residents who have concerns about the SMART Connector service should contact Dan Whitehead from SMART at (248) 419-7952 or Gina Muszynski, facility supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department, at (586) 992-2900. Barbret also suggested calling SMART’s main help line at (866) 962-5515.

According to Barbret, SMART has two bus drivers dedicated solely to Macomb Township, plus several other drivers in neighboring communities that can provide rides as needed. Still, he reminded residents that the service offered by a large-scale transportation program like SMART is different than what was available under Dial-A-Ride.

“The driving time varies greatly depending on trip distance and how many other people are on the bus,” Barbret explained in a subsequent interview. “Every day is going to be different for each driver and each rider. If anyone is experiencing any problems, please don’t hesitate to call us. Help us get this right. It’s not going to be the old program, but we know that we can provide a really great service for people who need it.”

Barbret added that unlike Dial-A-Ride drivers, SMART drivers do not go above and beyond the role of transportation providers. For reasons of efficiency and liability, they do not help riders to and from their home or carry their bags for them, as some Dial-A-Ride drivers had done.

“Our drivers are instructed to stay within an arm’s length of the bus at all times; they will not go into anyone’s home under any circumstances,” Barbret said. “Macomb’s drivers did a wonderful job for the people they served, but they didn’t transport very many people. It really wasn’t an efficient system at all. They were acting almost like personal caretakers, but that’s not the business we’re in.”

Muszynski agreed. She said she believes that some township residents are upset because they had grown accustomed to the more personalized service that Dial-A-Ride offered.

“Transferring the program to SMART was a fiscally responsible move by the township on behalf of all the residents who live here,” she said. “We want people to be able to get from point A to point B as fast, safe and efficient as possible. We’re still providing a public transportation service, but now we’re providing it for the masses — and that means we have to follow public transportation guidelines.”