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Disabled riders say $50 million ride service is unreliable

Justin Aucoin relies on Miami-Dade County to get him to his college classes on time, and right now he’s giving public officials a failing grade.

The 19-year-old sophomore has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and isn’t able to drive to the northwest campus of Miami Dade College, where he studies criminal justice. When he needs to get to class, Aucoin relies on Transportation America, the company with a public contract of about $260 million for five years to provide rides to 38,479 people with disabilities across the county.

But simply getting to class on time is a stress-inducing throw of the dice, Aucoin said. Transportation America has dropped him off well after the 9 a.m. start time to his three-day-a-week criminology course, he said, threatening his position in the class.

“The other day they picked me up at 7:45 in the morning and then drove me around for almost two hours picking up other people,” said Aucoin. “They got me there at 9:30. Thankfully, I didn’t miss the entire class, but my professor doesn’t like late students.”

“I am trying to gain independence,” he added. “Having to deal with this has been hell.””

Aucoin is among thousands of riders with disabilities who have complained about Transportation America to the Miami-Dade County Transportation and Public Works Department. Through Nov. 16, the county had received 5,493 complaints, representing an average of 17 per day. In 2021, a total of 4,994 complaints from riders were filed, according to the county.

A two-week sample of those complaints from last August showed the majority were for late drivers, no-shows and drop-offs at wrong locations.

For Anthony Corona, who serves as the legislative director for the Florida Council of the Blind, the frequency of complaints is unacceptable — and he said he’s witnessed Transportation America’s faulty service firsthand, including numerous late arrivals.

“All these millions of dollars that Transportation America is getting each year, where is it going?” asked Corona. “Because the people that are using the service are not getting the services they need.””

Both the county and Transportation America defended the company’s performance. “Incidents when someone may have been late are inevitable,” said attorney Miguel De Grandy, who serves as the top lobbyist for the company. “In terms of overall performance, Transportation America is actually stellar.””


The company has maintained a firm grip on the county contract since initially winning it in 2013. Miami-Dade County commissioners, recipients of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Transportation America and its affiliates, recently approved a new no-bid contract to pay the company roughly $262 million over the next five years.

Jessica Alessio, a visual rehabilitation therapist in Miami, doesn’t agree. She said she hears an inordinate number of complaints about the paratransit service from her own disabled clients — and she wonders how many bad rider experiences occur without formal complaints being filed.

“People don’t even want to use the service because it’s so inconvenient and they can never guarantee, especially with medical appointments and going to the airport, that they’ll get on time to those places,” said Alessio. “So it’s kind of useless for them. These are really good people that get left places, and some of them are very elderly. It’s very scary for them.””


De Grandy said the volume of complaints represents only a tiny fraction of the daily trips performed.

“The complaint ratio is minimal compared to the volume of trips,” he said. “You will always have people who are unhappy about something.””

Miami-Dade transportation department spokesman Luis Espinoza echoed De Grandy, noting that the county contract requires Transportation America to keep the rate of complaints below half of 1% for all trips. The county can seek damages from Transportation America if the number of complaints rises above that threshold, he said.

But even using that standard, the company is barely treading water. If the average of 17 complaints a day holds for 2022, the total number for the year will reach 6,205. Based on an average of about 1.2 million rides a year, the number of complaints is currently hovering very close to the .5% limit for acceptability.

Espinoza disputed that analysis, arguing that the use of calendar year statistics isn’t “valid” because the county’s data analyses are made during fiscal years, which end Sept. 30. He said that during fiscal year 2022 Transportation America provided 1.3 million trips and didn’t exceed the .5% threshold.

The county takes rider complaints “very seriously,”  said Espinoza. “We have a procedure in place to address these issues,” he said. “The transportation department works closely with [Transportation America] to investigate each complaint. We also follow up and work with clients to address their transportation issues and ensure resolutions.””

Transportation America’s vehicles could be delayed due to heavy traffic, accidents and other circumstances beyond the company’s control, said De Grandy.

“We are supposed to run parallel with the regular public transportation system,” he added. “This is not a limo service. This is a shared-ride service that takes into account unforeseeable issues.””

Whatever the reason for the litany of complaints, Miami-Dade transportation officials said they are responding by making improvements in the service that will take effect when the next contract term with the company begins in March.

During an Oct. 20 Zoom meeting with the Miami Beach Council of the Blind, Ruben Legra, head of the county’s paratransit operations, told concerned riders that Transportation America will for the first time be required to deploy two standby vans to be used when regular vehicles are falling behind schedule.

The county will also have its own dispatcher monitoring the routes and assigning standby vehicles when rides get backed up, said Legra, and Transportation America will be required to extend its call center’s hours of operations an additional three hours per day to 6 a.m.-6 p.m. and institute a “will-call” service for riders seeking trips to dialysis treatment appointments.

“We acknowledge the need to improve the current experience of our most vulnerable population in Miami-Dade,” Legra said. “During this time, the department will leverage the existing contract extension to implement changes that will improve the overall rider experience.””


Transportation America is owned by brothers Rene and Raymond Gonzalez, who also own Limousines of South Florida, a firm that has a separate county contract to operate more than two dozen regular bus routes. Based on Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s recommendation, the county commission recently awarded LSF a sixth no-bid extension to its 2017 contract.

The Gonzalezes also own Super Shuttle, a company that pays Miami-Dade for the exclusive right to provide multiple passenger transportation services at Miami International Airport. Under this contract, Super Shuttle is required to pay roughly $65,000 a month or 6.4% of its monthly gross revenues if greater than the minimum monthly payment.

Since Transportation America won its paratransit contract in 2013, the company’s owners have given more than half-a-million dollars to city of Miami and Miami-Dade politicians, according to an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Florida Bulldog in June. De Grandy said the Gonzalezes don’t exert political influence and have won all their contracts on merit.

The company elicits praise from county commissioners who say Transportation America is doing a fine job. At a Sept. 13 meeting, the county commission’s transportation committee voted to recommend approval of Transportation America’s new no-bid contract.

Levine Cava, who is the county’s chief administrator, had proposed a two-year contract with two one-year renewal options. The committee bumped up the term to three years so that Transportation America can recoup its costs for more than three dozen new vans the company bought in order to meet COVID-19 social-distancing requirements.

During the meeting, Commissioners Raquel Regalado and Rebeca Sosa said Transportation America deserved a longer term. Regalado, who has received $15,000 in campaign contributions from Gonzalez entities, told her colleagues that her office has fielded calls from constituents complaining about tardy pickups and drop-offs but that often Transportation America drivers have a valid reason for being late.

She has firsthand experience with Transportation America because both her children have disabilities and are public transit riders. Drivers are usually late because they are delayed by riders on previous stops, she said.

“They won’t leave a child or an elderly person alone,” Regalado said. “They are amazing people. They take great pride in providing this service.””

Sosa, who left office Nov. 17 because of term limits, received a combined $20,000 in political donations from Gonzalez entities in 2014 and 2018. She also lavished Transportation America with accolades at the committee meeting.

“When this county was in the middle of the pandemic, who came to the rescue when we didn’t have enough [bus] drivers?”” Sosa said. “This company did. … We need to keep this company that is offering [disabled riders] the safety and security they need.””

At an Oct. 6 meeting of the full county commission, the contract was approved by an 11-0 vote.


There’s a direct correlation between the political donations and Transportation America’s lock on disabled public transit services, said Corona.

“The county has been in bed with Transportation America for a very long time,” Corona said. “The oversight is minimal and almost nonexistent. All we get are excuses.””

Corona and his domestic partner, Gabriel Lopez, are both blind. Since relocating from New York City about two years ago, both of them have experienced their fair share of bad service from Transportation America, Corona said, adding that the number of complaints is “way beyond what it should be.””

“My partner alone made 14 complaints in three months,”  he said. “It’s hard to keep telling your boss that the reason you are consistently late two, three days a week is because of paratransit.””

Aucoin said on the day he was taken for a two-hour ride, the driver went from his home in Hialeah to pick up people in North Miami even though the campus is only 15 minutes from his house.

For his doctor’s appointments, he’s relying on his mother to take him because he doesn’t trust Transportation America to get him there on time. He said he’s trying to be “hopefully optimistic”  that the county will improve the service with the new measures it has promised but will believe it when he sees it.

“But I’m not having my hopes up too high because the county has pulled a lot of BS,”  he said. “They say they’re going to do something, and then they don’t do it.”

This article was also published in the Miami Herald.