Township turns Dial-A-Ride program over to SMART

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published August 28, 2013

MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The township’s popular Dial-A-Ride transportation service for seniors and disabled residents began a new chapter last week when the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) was given full control of the program.

The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the contract with SMART on Aug. 14, a decision that took the responsibility of managing Dial-A-Ride away from the township’s Parks and Recreation Department. By handing the keys to the program over to SMART, the township also laid off all eight of its Dial-A-Ride bus drivers, replacing them with SMART’s staff drivers.

According to Parks and Recreation Director Sal DiCaro, this transfer of ownership will allow for a new and improved version of the previous Dial-A-Ride system.

“We’re just a parks and rec department,” he said, “but this is what the people at SMART do for a living, so they can operate a transportation service much more efficiently than we ever possibly could on our own. Truly, the only difference that people are going to see is the number that they have to call. If you’re a Dial-A-Ride patron, then you should be thrilled with this change.”

Added Fred Barbret, Macomb Community Ombudsperson for SMART, “The township wants to focus on its parks and recreation activities and not on being a transit provider. We track ridership for all of our buses on a weekly basis, so we have a good handle on what to expect in this community, in terms of demand. We believe that we will be able to accommodate everyone with a higher level of service than what they had previously.”

Two of the biggest problems under the old Dial-A-Ride system have now been resolved, Barbret said. Many township residents had complained that the service would not drive them outside the township borders; however, the new program will 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. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; the new system, meanwhile, will double those hours to operate every weekday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Those improvements will likely be embraced by Dial-A-Ride users, but another change with the program might not prove so popular. While the previous service was free for township residents, there will be a small fee associated with the new one. As Barbret explained, there will be a “transition period” of a few months in which there will be no charge for trips within the township and a $1 charge for trips outside the township. After that transition period is over, though, all riders will pay the standard $1 SMART fee for all trips, regardless of distance.

The Dial-A-Ride name will also be scrapped, Barbret said, as the program will simply be absorbed into SMART’s existing small bus connector service. To make a reservation, users should call (866) 962-5515 and press “1” for “connector.” Medical trip reservations can be made up to six days in advance, while general trip reservations can be made up to two days in advance. All trips are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis, and reservations must be received by 4 p.m. one day before the service is needed.

One thing will remain unchanged from the old Dial-A-Ride system, though: the buses themselves. Because these vehicles were already provided by SMART, the company’s drivers will simply continue using them under the new system.

While that system will not be able to take riders anywhere and everywhere that they want to go, Barbret stressed that SMART will try to accommodate those residents who wish to travel outside the designated 10-mile radius.

“Small bus services are not generally designed for long trips,” he said. “They’re designed to bring people to their local doctor’s office or grocery store. But if people want to go on a longer trip, then we will try to transfer them to another SMART vehicle that’s on the route they need.”

The new program was originally intended to get underway on Sept. 3, but out of necessity, it was moved forward by two weeks to Aug. 20. According to DiCaro, the township’s Dial-A-Ride bus drivers were informed on Aug. 15 that their last day of employment would be Aug. 30, a decision that upset many drivers.

“That was the plan we had in mind,” DiCaro said, “but we had to move everything up because of how the drivers reacted to the news. Unfortunately, a few of them started spreading so much misinformation about the new SMART program that we had to let them go early.”

DiCaro added that the eight laid-off drivers have been invited to apply for positions at SMART. Still, Barbret admitted that some Dial-A-Ride users would undoubtedly be sad to see their favorite driver go.

“Yes, it’s true that all the old drivers will be gone, which is unfortunate,” he said. “I’m sure there are going to be some hurt feelings from folks who are losing their driver, but our focus is on providing them with a positive riding experience. We want to take them to the places they need to go and help them remain as independent as possible.”

Township Clerk Michael Koehs pointed out that the new agreement with SMART is an “open-ended contract” with no set ending date. If, for whatever reason, the program is not working out, both parties have certain conditions under which they can terminate the contract. In addition, the township officials can re-evaluate the agreement on an annual basis and suggest any necessary amendments.

Last November, the Macomb Township 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, in addition to providing rides for seniors and disabled residents.

DiCaro said he believes that the system his department inherited from former Supervisor Mark Grabow was woefully inefficient. He pointed out that Dial-A-Ride drivers were being paid $4 to $7 per hour more than those from any other Macomb County community with a similar transportation program. The new system, he contended, will correct the “wasteful spending” of the previous one. Based on current ridership numbers, DiCaro estimated that with SMART at the helm, the township will save about $50,000 per year on the cost of drivers’ salaries alone.

He also pointed out that the transportation contract nearly went to another company. Medstar originally made a proposal to take over the Dial-A-Ride service, but then SMART stepped up and made an even cheaper offer — one that township officials couldn’t refuse. DiCaro said he feels confident that the service is now in more capable hands.

“We (the Parks and Recreation Department) took over this program in January,” he said, “and I think my staff did an excellent job running it, given the limited resources that we had to work with. But when SMART offered to take over the program themselves, it was just too good of an offer to pass up. Having our costs go down and our level of service go up really made this decision a no-brainer for us.”