Suffolk County Transit, Hauppauge, NY, 02-15-07

U.S. Department of Transportation

Federal Transit Administration

Headquarters

400 Seventh St., S.W.
Room 9100
Washington, D.C. 20590

February 15, 2007

Ms. Christine Malafi
County Attorney
H. Lee Dennison Building
Suffolk County Department of Law
100 Veterans Memorial Highway
P.O. Box 6100
Hauppauge, New York 11788

Re: Review of Documents Produced by Suffolk County in Response to Federal Government's 2005 Requests for Information on ADA Compliance

Dear. Ms. Malafi:

Pursuant to several letters last year, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requested information from Suffolk County concerning its transit system, Suffolk County Transit (SCT). Specifically, DOJ and FTA requested information related to SCT's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Our joint investigation revealed areas of concern with respect to the County's compliance with Title II of the ADA and the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) implementing regulations at 49 CFR Parts 27, 37, and 38. By this letter, FTA brings these areas of concern to your attention. We also request updated information on the County’s operations and its plans to bring itself into compliance with the ADA. Absent evidence that the County has brought—or promptly will bring—SCT into ADA compliance, FTA may demand additional reports from SCT or, if necessary, refer this matter to DOJ for enforcement proceedings.

Specifically, our investigation focused on three areas of concern:

  1. Failure to make required stop announcements and route identifications on SCT's fixed-route system.
  2. The use of buses with inoperative lifts on SCT's fixed route system and excessive wait times for accessible transportation when a lift is inoperable.
  3. Capacity constraints in SCT's ADA complementary paratransit service, Suffolk County Accessible Transportation (SCAT).

Based on our review of the documents provided by the County, FTA has reached the following determinations in each area.

A. Failure to make required stop announcements and route identifications on SCT's fixed-route system.

The County reported an overall rate of 72 percent in completing stop and route announcements. SCT monitors compliance using third party contractors hired by SCT service contractors.

Placing responsibility for service monitoring with the contractor responsible for service provision—or self-monitoring—has the potential to skew results favorably to the contractor. SCT's direct control of the monitoring program would provide more independent oversight of contractor performance.

On the other hand, we realize that the observation sample selected by the service contractor during the 23-month period from September 2003 through July 2005 targeted suspected underperforming drivers, rather than a random sample of SCT's drivers. Accordingly, it is possible that even given the service contractor's self-monitoring, the 72 percent rate reflects performance below SCT's actual rate of performance. A combination of random selection and selection targeted at drivers expected of poor performance—analyzed separately—would serve both to assess SCT's overall performance and promote improved performance through driver training and progressive discipline.

SCT also reports that it procured 59 buses with automated stop announcement equipment, for delivery to SCT between August 2005 and December 31, 2006. SCT plans to equip these buses with Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology, adding to the 48 existing SCT buses equipped with AVL technology.

Finding No. 1: Through monitoring, disciplinary actions, and procurements, SCT is making a concerted effort to achieve compliance with stop announcement and route identification requirements, but it still falls short of the goal of 100 percent performance.

Request No. 1: Please update FTA on SCT’s stop announcement and route identification rates for the period January 1 through December 31, 2006. To the extent performance remains below the goal of 100 percent, indicate what additional steps SCT will take to ensure compliance with the stop announcement and route identification requirements. Include an update on SCT’s implementation of an AVL system to automate stop announcements, including a timeline for the project.

B. The Use of Buses with Inoperative Lifts on SCT’s Fixed Route System and Excessive Wait Times for Accessible Transportation When a Lift is Inoperable

SCT reports that 100 percent of its fleet has lifts. The documents provided to FTA and DOJ also show, however, that during the sample period, SCT inspectors reported 62 instances of buses with inoperable lifts, 40 percent of which SCT used in operation before repairing the malfunction. Considering the number of spare buses in SCT’s fleet, FTA questions SCT’s need to place such vehicles in service. We note that DOT’s ADA regulations require the use of accessible buses when an accessible spare is available, and the use of an inaccessible bus for no more than three days if there is no spare vehicle available to take the place of the one with an inoperable lift. Moreover, SCT used 14 of its buses with inoperable lifts (more than 20 percent) for more than three consecutive days, in express violation of this DOT ADA regulation.

Finding No. 2: SCT placed some buses in service with inoperable lifts, despite the availability of spare buses with working lifts. Furthermore, some of those buses remained in service for more than three consecutive days.

Request No. 2: Please update FTA on SCT’s lift failure rates, and the length of time each failing vehicle remained in service during the period January 1 through December 31, 2006. Include an update on any changes in SCT’s policies or practices related to lift failures, the length of time before spare buses with operable lifts are put into service, and for what period buses with inoperable lifts may remain in service.

Finding No. 3: SCT does not collect information on the length of time a rider must wait for an accessible bus or alternative form of transportation following the arrival of a bus experiencing a lift failure when the headway to the next accessible bus exceeds 30 minutes. SCT, therefore, cannot demonstrate its compliance with the requirement to provide such alternative transportation in a timely manner.

Request No. 3: Please propose how SCT will monitor and ensure compliance with its obligation to provide timely alternative transportation under such circumstances.

C. Capacity Constraints in SCT’s ADA Complementary Paratransit Service

Our July 25, 2005, data request focused on a number of ADA complementary paratransit issues, including telephone access to the reservation system. Providing telephone access to passengers interested in scheduling or changing a trip reservation, or checking on the status of a ride, constitutes an important part of ADA complementary paratransit operations. A transit system’s capacity includes not only its ability to transport riders, but also its ability to schedule trips in the first place; ongoing problems in accessing the system’s telephone service discourages and prevents riders from using the service, evidencing a capacity constraint.

The documents we received from the County indicate that SCT’s contract with the Suffolk Bus Corporation (SBC) requires that SBC respond to 90 percent of incoming calls within three minutes. Although the SCAT call center system records the number of calls sent to queue, it does not track the length of times calls remain in queue, or the number of calls receiving busy signals.

Finding No. 4: SCT lacks a procedure to monitor the frequency of busy signals or the length of hold times experienced by SCAT riders. Thus, SCT cannot demonstrate its compliance with the requirement to provide telephone access sufficient to meet paratransit demand.

Request No. 4: Please explain what steps SCT will take to ensure that callers seeking paratransit services do not encounter busy signals or long telephone hold times, and what steps SCT will take to monitor the effectiveness of the SCAT phone system. Also, if it has not done so already, SCT should implement a system (automated or otherwise) to record the percent of callers receiving a busy signal, as well as the length of time by percentile (or average and longest length of time if percentile is not possible), broken out by hour of day or comparable unit of time. To the extent such information is available already, please provide that data to FTA.

Our July 25, 2005, data request also addressed SCAT trip reliability. Using the data provided by the County, we reviewed information on specific trip dispositions for the sample period of May 16-21, 2005. Our analysis indicates that SCAT had 92 trip denials, representing 1.9 percent of requested trips. In addition, it appears that on 82 other occasions, customers refused the trips offered, perhaps because SCAT failed to offer the trip requested. Thus, the effective trip denial rate likely exceeds 1.9 percent, and may stand as high as 3.6 percent (if the 82 customer refusals resulted from SCAT’s failure to offer responsive trips).

Whether the actual denial rate is 1.9 percent, 3.6 percent, or somewhere in between, a latent demand exists for SCAT service, specifically a demand for those trips that would be requested or accepted if SCAT offered a more reliable service. The number of days between each reservation and the scheduled trip provides an even stronger indication of this latent demand. In the sample month of May 2005, 81.9 percent of the 20,365 trip requests logged by SCAT occurred a full seven days in advance. Moreover, 946 (4.6 percent) occurred six days in advance, 765 (3.8 percent) occurred five days in advance, 655 (3.2 percent) occurred four days in advance, 554 (2.7 percent) occurred three days in advance, 454 (2.2 percent) occurred two days in advance, and only 296 (1.4 percent) involved next-day service.

FTA’s experience has shown that when riders have access to reservation systems and their trips will not be denied, the majority of them will not reserve trips a full week in advance. In addition, the fact that SCAT’s phone reservation lines operate at full capacity during the first several hours of each day (from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.) indicates that riders understand they must call early or not receive responsive trips. Here, only 1.4 percent of SCAT’s trips during May 2005 were scheduled the day before, evidencing a high level of unserved demand. In FTA’s experience, given these numbers, the latent demand may prove to be as much as 50 to 100 percent above existing service levels (10,000 to 20,000 additional trips per month). Furthermore, data for May 2005 appears representative of reservation patterns for the reporting time period of May 2004 through August 2005.

Finding No. 5: In light of SCAT’s ongoing reported trip denials and the potentially substantial latent demand for SCAT service, we find that SCAT is experiencing capacity constraints.

Request No. 5: Please update FTA on SCAT’s current number of denials and total number of trip requests, per month, for the period January 1 through December 31, 2006. Also, categorize the number of trip requests made for each of those months, broken out by number of days booked in advance. Please also indicate what steps SCAT proposes for expanding capacity to meet both expressed and latent demand.

D. Conclusion

We are requesting a response to these requests with thirty days of this letter. In your response, you should include a description of the actions that the County has taken or plans to take to correct deficiencies identified in this letter. At a minimum, for each corrective action identified, your response should include the following:

We understand that the County has entered into a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs in Collins, and you should feel free to explain how the County’s obligations under the settlement agreement address any of the concerns covered in this letter. We remind you, however, that the Federal Government is not party to that settlement agreement. Thus, we will insist on compliance with the ADA regardless of the terms of that agreement, and conduct independent oversight of the County, as an FTA grantee. FTA’s review of the County’s response to this letter will determine our course of action, following consultations with DOJ. Without prejudicing our decision, we will make every effort to assist the County to achieve voluntary and prompt compliance with the ADA and DOT’s implementing regulations. If you have questions concerning this letter or SCT’s ADA obligations, please feel free to contact me or David Knight of my staff at (202) 366-0805 or david.knight@dot.gov.

Sincerely,


Michael A. Winter
Director, Office of Civil Rights

cc:
Ms. Adrianna Lopez, Assistant County Attorney (Suffolk County)
Brigid Hynes-Cherin, FTA Region II Administrator
Maisie Grace, FTA Region II Counsel
John Prince, FTA Region II Civil Rights Officer
Loretta King, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, DOJ