Public transit not working for some blind people in Pinellas


When the world around you is nothing but a veil of blackness, getting around becomes pretty hard. That’s the life of a blind person. But some members of a group for sight impaired Pinellas County residents say they don’t have access to reliable transportation. Kathy Millican is the president of the Pinellas Council of the Blind.

“They’ve had really substantial delays. People are not being picked up on time. Sometimes they’re not being picked up at all. Calls are being dropped. There’s not drivers assigned to passenger pickups.”

Many blind people rely on cabs for transportation. Millican says there have been complaints trickling in for years about the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority program that gives subsidized cab rides to people with disabilities. It’s called DART – Demand Response Transportation. It pays about 2/3 the cost of a cab ride and tips are not allowed. But Ross Silvers, PSTA’s mobility manager overseeing the program says it’s not meant to be like a private cab ride. Those take you from door to door. This, he adds, is meant to be more like a bus route where other people get in and out of the taxi.

“If someone has work that starts at 9:00 a.m., they may only live 6 or 7 miles away from work and if someone were to drive them door to door it might only take them 15 minutes to get there. So, their natural inclination is going to say, well, why don’t you pick me up at 8:30 to get there at 9:00. Because as public transportation, we view the DART as being parallel to taking the bus. So, if you were going to take a bus to work, you wouldn’t allow that little time and the same is true for DART.”

PSTA has contracted the service to Yellow Cab to transport people with disabilities who don’t need a wheelchair. People who do need one use a different company DART critics say is quicker and more reliable. Douglas Towne is the chair of the consulting firm Disability Relations Group. He says the difference in quality lies in cost. Cab drivers typically lease their cars and only get a portion of the fare.

“So the driver will say, I’m not going to take that trip because I’m going to lose money doing it.”

Towne has taken complaints about long wait times and missed service from numerous people. He’s heard everything from people waiting in the heat for two hours to being left entirely. But the complaints have slowed substantially.

“A lot of people just kind of gave up and said, what’s the point in complaining? They don’t care.”

Why should they care? Towne points out that the fines for Yellow Cab for being late are measly at best. DART’s Silvers even acknowledges that.

“Late penalties happen all the time and can add up, but are not individually that significant.”

But he adds there is a much larger fine for fudging the paperwork to show a cab ride wasn’t late. Silvers has seen that happen a couple of times, but not often.

“Obviously they’re not going to want to get a $500 fine.”

Silvers, with county transportation, points to the slowing of complaints as evidence that Yellow Cab is getting better. They’ve hired more drivers and more people to answer calls. He says expectations have been made very clear and if the company doesn’t continue to improve they could get out of the contract within 30-days. But Millican, from the Pinellas Council of the Blind, she thinks the reduction in complaints isn’t because the program is getting better.

“A lot of our members are fearful. They’re afraid that they’re going to lose that service and as a result they don’t want to come out and speak publicly about the problems that we are experiencing.”

The DART program requires people with disabilities to apply. They have to reapply every four years. The Pinellas Council of the Blind will meet on July 19 in the Countryside area to speak to DART’s Silvers.

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