SLO County changes its senior transportation provider

Jun 12, 2018

Why does San Luis Obispo County pay for senior citizen transportation? The roots of that particular social service are in circa 1970s state legislation.

The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) is a governmental agency that receives federal and state funding for — and plans — the county’s regional transportation. This month, SLOCOG voted on awarding a taxpayer-funded grant to a new company for the county’s senior citizen transportation program, instead of one that’s served the county for years.

[audio of bus door opening, people speaking]

That's driver Joe Rossini helping a rider onto a shuttle bus near the corner of Park and Pacific Coast Highway in Pismo Beach. At 67 years old, Gary Wintle can't drive anymore and needs someone to take him to places like the doctor's office or a grocery store.

On another day, 70-year-old Mike Halloran gets picked up at Costco store in San Luis Obispo.

"I use Ride-On because I'm blind and I can't drive," Halloran said. "I come up to the doctors, up to Costco for food. They're just on top of things."

The population of people aged 70 and older in San Luis Obispo County is forecasted to grow by 30,000 in the next 20 years. That’s according to Beacon Economics, a Los Angeles research firm that uses state and federal data. And providing those seniors with efficient and low-cost rides was the subject of a vote at SLOCOG on June 6.

The vote decided which company receives a $250,000 grant for SLOCOG's Senior Go! Program. The grant covers a two-year contract, and the new program aims to provide door-to-door shuttle transportation for those aged 65 or older throughout the county. SLOCOG staff recommended the money be awarded to an out-of-county, for-profit company based in Ventura, Ventura Transit System, or VTS.

Ride-On, a San Luis Obispo nonprofit that has been receiving the grant for the same purpose, protested that recommendation.

Ride-On currently provides low-cost, door-to-door transportation to individuals with disabilities, those with low-income, and seniors with the help of public transportation funds awarded by SLOCOG. But now a good chunk of those funds will go elsewhere.

Mark Shaffer, executive director of Ride-On, said the county will get a bad deal because his competitor VTS  not only submitted a proposal that was $89,000 more than Ride-On’s, but that a large portion of the money will pay for administrative costs instead of providing more rides.

Ride-On is already established in the county and to create another senior shuttle service is not efficient, he added.

"To fund an alternative senior shuttle using the funds that Ride-On is using for the existing one - it’s not what's best for government money,” Shaffer said. “This is tax dollar money."

According to SLOCOG, under current senior shuttle services provided by Ride-On, there are no clearly defined performance goals and Ride-On is a single provider, so there’s no competition. But all rides cost $3, regardless of mileage. Under the new Senior Go program to be brokered by VTS, there will be multiple providers, hence more competition. However, that doesn’t mean all prices will go down. On the contrary, cost each way to senior passengers will soon range from $2.50 to $10, based on mileage. 

The Senior Go program launches on July 1. 

The funds for the senior shuttle program come from the state’s Transportation Development Act of 1971. That law provides taxpayer money to counties to improve public transportation.

In 1979, the state passed AB 120, or the Social Services Transportation Improvement Act. That required each county to designate a consolidated transportation services agency, or CTSA. In SLO County, the designated CTSA is the nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy, which created Ride-On in 1993 as a means to diversify their services.

Over the past three years, according to Shaffer, Ride-On has seen more than $300,000 of funding disappear, due to county cuts. Without the state funding distributed by SLOCOG, he says, Ride-On may not be able to continue its Senior Shuttle program at its current level of service.

Peter Rogers, SLOCOG's deputy director, defends the proposal to switch companies.

He said his agency is trying to save money because with the growing number of seniors coming to the county, Rogers sees the writing on the wall.

"Our efforts here have been to create a more responsive system with better transparency and fiscal accountability," Rogers said. "In the past, we didn't have the authority to make program decisions over how the program is run. Now we do with a service level contract."

Rather than a bidding process, SLOCOG put out a request for proposal (RFP). The decision on which company to fund isn't necessarily about cost, said San Luis Obispo County District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who voted on the contract.

"It's not required that we take the lowest amount," Gibson said. "It's a more complex and a thorough process of looking at what the respondent is proposing to provide, at what cost."

There are other factors, Rogers said, particularly those relating to transparency. Rogers said the amount of projected ridership and low administration fees on Ride-On's proposal, which amount to only $25 each year, is one of the things that doesn't jibe with SLOCOG staff.

However, Shaffer says that Ride-On's administrative costs are already covered through the CTSA. On numerous occasions, Shaffer said, he has provided detailed accounting reports to SLOCOG staff to show how money is spent.

Shaffer said the funding under the 1979 law isn’t meant to pay for specific services, but to fund the nonprofit’s infrastructure.

“And they’ve changed that whole model now to say that it’s our money and we’re going to decide how it’s spent and whether Ride-On even gets any of it,” Shaffer said. “That’s not the intent of the bill.”

On June 6, the SLOCOG board voted unanimously to deny Shaffer’s protest and approve the two-year contract for VTS. In the discussion preceding the vote, board members said the new service level contract will increase awareness and access to seniors and improve performance accountability of the service.

According to SLOCOG spokesperson Stephanie Hicks, the purpose of going with a service level contract is to eliminate “cross subsidies” of other CTSA programs.

The decision to switch companies appeared to be a done deal before the board took its vote on June 6. At least a week prior, a page on SLOCOG’s website described the new transportation service to be brokered by VTS.

David Minsky is a San Luis Obispo-based freelance reporter. He can be reached at minskyda@gmail.com.