While officials said VITRAN is working to hire more VITRAN Plus bus drivers, the shortage continues to impact service. The information came to light Wednesday during a meeting of the Senate’s Housing, Public Works and Waste Management Authority Committee at the Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
“The entity desperately needs operators. I’m asking the Legislature to appropriate funds,” St. Thomas resident Barbara Miller said.
Miller, who uses the VITRAN Plus bus service provided for people with physical challenges, said that clients sometimes face lengthy waits for service. She said in her case, this causes physical pain that is hard to handle.
Several officials explained that part of the waiting problem happens because VITRAN Plus ignores the federal law that mandates the paratransit buses pick up passengers only within three-quarters of a mile of a VITRAN fixed route bus stop. They do this because there is a need.
VITRAN Plus recently got some new buses and currently has seven each operating on St. Thomas and St. Croix as well as two on St. John.
Deputy Public Works Commissioner Miguel Quinones said ideally there would be 2.5 drivers for every bus. “We’re in the 1.7 range right now,” he said.
VITRAN comes under the umbrella of the Department of Public Works.
In response to a question about how this situation arose, VITRAN Operations Manager Stephen Monsanto said that in the previous administration, VITRAN was promised the resources to hire more drivers, but the funding never arrived.
“This was not done in a vacuum,” he said.
To add to VITRAN’s woes, when problems occur, instead of letting the VITRAN office know, clients file a complaint with the federal government. This impacts funding.
“When you have a complaint, file locally,” suggested Sen. Marvin Blyden, who chaired the meeting.
While VITRAN Plus has 690 registered clients on St. Croix, 280 on St. Thomas and 24 on St. John, Monsanto said only about 50 or 60 people a day actually use the service.
While the regular VITRAN buses on fixed routes can accommodate wheelchairs, Monsanto said not all bus stops on St. Thomas and St. John can accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.
He said the hilly terrain means the bus stop can’t meet the Americans with Disabilities Act standards that allow the bus to safely deploy the wheelchair lift.
There are occasional delays for VITRAN Plus clients, but Miller said the service was good for the most part. She had kudos for the drivers who go the extra mile to help the clients.
However, she had harsh words for some of the clients who are rude and curse at the drivers.
“There has to be a limit somewhere. It breaks my heart to see them do it,” Miller said.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly had some strong words for the VITRAN staff person who answered the phone when she called to complain that the bus hadn’t arrived at the Sunny Isle stop on St. Croix.
“I was treated like crap,” she said, noting that she did not identify herself as a senator.
She said the woman who answered the phone yelled, screamed, cursed and carried on at her. Monsanto said this was the first he heard of this incident and apologized for the woman’s behavior.
Also at issue is the territory’s need to bring its buildings into ADA compliance. Jamila Russell, who serves as the ADA coordinator for the territory, gave the territory a C for compliance but said progress is ongoing and improvements are expected.
Since many of the buildings are old and considered historic, Russell said it isn’t an easy process.
“It will be expensive,” she said.
Rivera-O’Reilly suggested that a bridge be built between St. Thomas and St. John to cut down on government redundancy and grow commerce. While she acknowledged there would be opposition to the idea, she said she would take on the ferry companies that would be out of business if a bridge went up.
The senators also spent a couple hours discussing a bill that extends the mandate that Public Works jobs paid for with public funding hire locally. The bill adds “subsidiary and public/private partnership” to the local government to the contractors and subcontractors already included in the bill.
Much of the discussion focused on contractors that bring in off-island workers when they could hire locally.
“The issue is one of enforcement,” said Arah Lockhart, the Labor Department’s director of workforce development.
All the senators on the floor voted to send the bill on to the Rules Committee. Sen. Almando “Rocky” Liburd was off the floor when the vote was taken.
In addition to Rivera-O’Reilly, Blyden and Liburd, Sen. Clifford Graham, Sen. Jean Forde, Sen. Neville James, and Sen. Kenneth Gittens attended the meeting. All are committee members. Noncommittee members Sen. Myron Jackson, Sen. Novelle Francis and Sen. Kurt Vialet also attended.