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Spotty CARE van service leaves riders in limbo

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/1/2015, 3:58 p.m. | Updated on 5/1/2015, 3:58 p.m.
Roderyck Bullock has somewhere to go almost every day, but he doesn’t always make it. His ride sometimes arrives late. ...
Roderyck Bullock waits patiently for one of GRTC’s CARE vans to take him home from the city’s Social Service Center on South Side. He only wishes, like many riders, that the service he relies on would be more reliable. Photo by Sandra Sellars

The van service is actually in two parts — CARE and C-Van. C-Van provides rides to jobs for Social Services clients enrolled in a work program called VIEW, or Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare.

The van service is expensive. GRTC spends about $16 million a year to provide CARE service, or nearly 25 percent of its annual budget. However, the service provides only about 250,000 rides a year, or a little more than 2 percent of the 10 million total rides GRTC provides each year.

Tim Barham of GRTC acknowledges CARE service could be better. At a recent meeting of CARE riders, he said the vans are on time about 80 percent of the time, meaning that one in five rides is handled after the scheduled pickup time has come and gone.

One reason may be the lack of continuity in the contractor providing the service. GRTC replaces the private company every few years. MV Transportation of Dallas got the contract in December, replacing Keolis North America of Rockville, Md.

And there appears to be significant turnover in drivers. Mr. Bullock said he was told he got late service at one point because six drivers abruptly quit.

Without confirming or denying the problem, Mr. Barham stated that GRTC is continuing to “work with MV to ensure that both required operator needs and rider needs are met. GRTC and MV have been hiring and training new operators continuously and will continue to do so until proper staffing levels are met.”

Earlier this week, a new group of operators graduated from training, he noted. Still, “it is expected in any company for there to be periodic staff turnover,” which he said would require GRTC and MV “to adjust needed staffing numbers to maintain the level of service our customers depend on.”

Mr. Barham said efforts have been made to address concerns that drivers too often get lost. He said van operators are equipped with mobile terminals or tablets that provide them with GPS or turn-by-turn directions. Operators who still get lost are counseled and retrained, he said.

“All service is documented in a manifest and can be referred to when investigating a customer’s concern,” he said.

Unlike regular buses, CARE takes reservations from customers for service, and then routes its drivers based on where pickups are scheduled. He said GRTC has improved the way it accepts reservations. People can now place reservations by phone, by fax or by email, he said.

Still, reservations cannot be made online yet. GRTC is still looking into that option, he said.

Mr. Barham said GRTC also is trying to improve CARE customer service. He said the company recently added integrated voice response (IVR) that allows a customer to leave a number and receive a call back, rather than having to stay on hold. Customers also can leave a message on the voicemail, he said.

The next step, he said, will be to modify the IVR to contact a customer when the vehicle arrives to improve communication and reduce “no shows.” He could not indicate when GRTC would install that option.

He also said GRTC is committed to upgrading the software the company uses to route drivers and plans to do so in the next few years.

Meanwhile, riders like Mr. Bullock will have to keep their fingers crossed that the CARE van they have scheduled will show up as promised.