By James Boutelle
Some days I feel like the tourist in remote Maine who stops to ask for directions and is told “You can’t get there from here.” As the executive director of the Transportation Association of Greenwich, I manage a process that figures out how to get 400 riders a day from point A to point B. Being the father and homework helper of a sixth grader at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, this seems like a simple math problem of dividing the total number of trips by 16 vehicles. The answer: 25 trips per vehicle spread evenly over a 12-hour day, normally 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. That’s only 2.5 trips per hour. No problem!
Only, these trips are not divided evenly. Seventy percent of the trips occur between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. In addition, the pickups for TAG are spread throughout Greenwich and Stamford, two of the largest communities geographically in the state. Almost all of the main roads in both towns run north-south (Lake Ave, North Street, High Ridge and Long Ridge). The main east-west arteries, I-95, the Merritt Parkway and the Post Road, are not exactly empty during our peak hours. Until TAG added mini-vans to our fleet six years ago, none of our vehicles could travel on the Merritt Parkway.
So the Abilis client travelling from Stamford north of the Merritt now needs to travel in a mini-van if they are attending that agencies program in Glenville, but could travel by bus on the one day of the week they attend the program at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Greenwich. TAG provides over 4,000 rides a year to Abilis.
By comparison, we do almost 23,000 trips per year for Greenwich Adult Day Care. Here the clients need to be delivered at either 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. and all need to be taken home at 4 p.m. Two seniors who live only two minutes from each other may not be able to travel together because client A has a family caretaker who needs to leave for work by 8:15 while client B needs to wait for their professional aide who can’t have the client ready until 9:20. Many of these clients suffer from dementia, where having a different driver or variation in pickup time can lead to delays in loading. Also with this age population, riding on a bus or van for more than 50 minutes can lead to other issues. Sensitivity to the special needs of our clients is why our employees are hired as “human service drivers,” and why I don’t buy vehicles with cloth seats.
So how do we schedule all of these trips? Nine years ago, when TAG was only doing about 180 trips a day we invested in a computer-dispatching program called Route Match. This software designed specifically for paratransit services (it knows that a wheelchair takes five minutes to load vs. two minutes a client with a walker or cane) makes the process somewhat more manageable.
Yet, without the personal knowledge of Debbie Vetromile, our operations manager, who just celebrated 25th year anniversary at TAG, the schedules still wouldn’t work. Because of the age and health of the clients we serve, TAG still suffers a 12 percent cancellation no-show rate. A little over a year ago, to address the gaps this created in the drivers’ paper schedules, TAG added AVL/MDC tablets in our vehicles. AVL, advanced vehicle location and MDC, mobile data communication, allows us to re-arrange the schedules in real time and allows our dispatchers to know almost to the minute expected arrival times when a passenger calls to ask “where’s my ride?” Just as important, for myself and my finance director, this system now captures exact pickup and dropoff times and odometer readings, eliminating the close to $80,000 a year spent entering this data by hand into our billing system.
These savings are important because the average cost of providing a trip is $23 while our average fares only range from $2.40 to $5. Without close to $200,000 in operating support from the town of Greenwich, $78,000 from the State of Connecticut, $60,000 from the Greenwich United Way and $50,000 from the federal government for the purchase of new vehicles annually, TAG would have gone out of business years ago. Even with this support we are still left with a hole of almost $180,000 to fill each year. Thanks to generous local foundations and smaller donors about half of this gap is plugged. Still can’t get there yet!
No one person can do this alone, unless his name is Rick Muskus, Jr., who has served as the TAG president for the past ten years. Rick would tell you that he couldn’t manage two large benefits a year without the support of Cindi Koppelman and Jen Danzi along with the rest of the TAG board. TAG has been the beneficiary of events at Greenwich Polo, the kickoff party for Restaurant Week, and one other event each year. Next time you attend one of these events or make a donation, remember that your support is what lets us find our way from here to there.
James Boutelle, the executive director of TAG, has been involved with TAG for over 22 years.