MTA drops transit firm

State will not renew Yellow's pact to provide service for the disabled

Company appealing decision

Two businesses expected to take over after Dec. 31

October 29, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Transit Administration has awarded the contract to operate a paratransit service for thousands of disabled Marylanders every day to two out-of-state companies - replacing a Baltimore company whose service drew widespread criticism.

The MTA decision would replace Yellow Transportation/Connex, the company that has operated the door-to-door Mobility service in the Baltimore region for most of the past 16 years. The company has been the subject of many complaints by its customers and disability rights advocates but has also been credited with saving the program when another contractor defaulted in the late 1990s.

According to Yellow, the MTA awarded paratransit contracts to MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., and Laidlaw Transit Services of Overland Park, Kan.

According to Yellow's lawyer, Scott Livingston, the company is challenging the contract award - worth an estimated $43 million over the next three years - at the State Board of Contract Appeals. He said the company will show that the procurement process was biased against Yellow.

The contract award must be approved by the Board of Public Works, which normally defers action while an appeal is pending. However, Deputy Transportation Secretary Trent M. Kittleman said the MTA will ask the Public Works Board on Nov. 12 to approve the contract in spite of the protest so the new contractors can begin work as soon as possible after Yellow's contract expires Dec. 31.

Yellow has been the subject of many complaints over the years from its disabled patrons and their advocates. Dissatisfaction with the service recently prompted the Maryland Disability Law Center to file a federal lawsuit against the MTA seeking changes in the program.

Public transportation authorities are required to provide the curb-to-curb paratransit service to people who can't use conventional mass transit under the federal American with Disabilities Act.

The state has conceded its Mobility service, which provides van and taxi rides to about 2,200 disabled riders each day, has significant problems. In a July article in The Sun, state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan described the paratransit operation, which serves about 14,000 people, as "almost completely dysfunctional."

The company's lobbyist, Carolyn T. Burridge, noted that Yellow Transportation Chief Executive Mark L. Joseph was an enthusiastic supporter of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Burridge expressed concern that some Ehrlich administration officials might be holding that against his company.

"There's just too many things that don't make sense," Burridge said, adding that she had no "smoking gun" to show that was happening.

Joseph sent a blunt letter to Kittleman last week accusing her of tampering with the procurement process.

"You biased your staff and signaled to the selection panel during the procurement process your desire to assure Yellow would not be successful," the letter states.

Joseph noted a report in the City Paper that Kittleman had promised last month - before the contract award was made - that a new contractor would be in place by December.

Kittleman contends the article was wrong, and that she said a new contract would be in place. She also denied any bias against Yellow and said she had no knowledge of the political leanings of its chief executive.

"It was as straightforward and fair and with as much integrity as you could ask for in the procurement process," she said.

Ronald J. Hartman, executive vice president of Yellow and a former MTA administrator, said the company had a contentious relationship with agency officials who oversaw the Mobility program. He accused the officials of ignoring the company's efforts to improve service.

"We have constantly provided suggestions - almost invariably rebuffed," Hartman said.

Hartman acknowledged that the company has had problems with its service but said that is partly the nature of the business.

"It is a difficult service to provide, and it's fraught with issues," Hartman said.

Hartman put the company's complaint rate at 2.4 per 1,000 trips - a score that compares well with other providers around the country, he said.

One person who won't be sorry if Yellow's appeal doesn't survive is Wayne Wilson, a 48-year-old East Baltimore man who has multiple sclerosis.

Last week, the former longshoreman called The Sun to complain that a Yellow van had left him waiting in the cold for several hours - and not for the first time.

Wilson expressed delight yesterday when told the contract had been awarded to providers other than Yellow.

"They're awful. The awfulest thing you'd ever want to see," he said. "I'm so glad to see them go, I don't know how they stayed around so long."

Yellow may be staying around a bit longer than the state originally envisioned.

Hartman said yesterday that there is no way another company will be able to make the transition by New Year's Day. He said - and Kittleman confirmed - that Yellow is negotiating with the state to extend its current contract for as long as its services are needed.

"They've made it quite clear they need us to continue to operate," he said. "We're not going to strand anyone."

Kittleman promised that there will be no interruption of service. "If I have to go out and drive myself, there will not be a gap," she said.

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