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New Paratransit System Not Sitting Well with Rider

Woodstock's paratransit system has gone from "elite" to "inferior", according to a long time rider. Margaret Ainsworth, who relied on the service for 6-years has reverted to paying more to take a taxi, rather than booking bus trips 24-hours in advance. Ainsworth, who suffers from varying degrees of paralysis on the right side of her body, says her medical condition makes it difficult to know if she's going to be able to go out a day in advance. "And then there's the element about what time do you want to be picked up? Well when you go to a doctor's office, you don't know what time you've got to be picked up. You could be there for an hour, you could be there for three." Last week, with a pending snowstorm on Friday, she says she was forced to go out to do her grocery shopping on Thursday, and took a taxi, instead of booking 24-hours in advance. "It makes me feel inferior. Before, I was like anyone else, if I wanted to go somewhere, I would just phone a cab. In this respect, the way they're working things now, it makes me feel inferior, and I've talked to other people who use the service and they feel the same way." Ainsworth says after an incident of a miscommunication with the new dispatch service for appointment booking, where her ride showed up 20-minutes late, she's now paying extra to take a taxi instead. She's not alone. Since the city changed paratransit from subsidized taxi rides to the bus service in December, ridership has dropped by 50%. The expected cost of the service could jump 42%, despite fewer riders. That's partly to blame on new provincial regulations that state the city must provide the service under the same hours as regular transit, which is a 30% increase from before. Plus, the city purchased a new Paratransit bus, hired Red Cross to provide booking and dispatching, and hired Voyageur to handle any overflow service. At city council's January 24th budget meeting, when councillors were presented with the troubling numbers by City Engineer Harold DeHaan, they seemed to take it in stride. Paul Plant - "We changed from something that was elite, cause it was more than we gave regular transit riders. So that big of a drop isn't surprising." Pat Sobeski - "Because you've got to order 24-hours in advance, it certainly accommodates people that have fixed appointments. But those that suddenly have an emergency can call up and...it may be difficult to slot them in, as it picks up, but we'll see how it goes." Bill Bes - "The system that we had was so Liberal that the cost would not have been sustainable in the long run. This is a program that is more accountable and we have more control. Eventually people will take responsibility that they realize that you can't just call up a taxi and go wherever we want to go. This is a service the city provides, and you have to kind of plan your day just like everybody else does." Ron Fraser - "It's going to take time for people to get used to using this service, and riding the bus, than taking the taxi. Our taxi drivers did give quality service to the people they looked after, but, that's one of the reasons it was so well used. It was a very personal service." At that meeting, DeHaan also admitted the transition for riders and the staff that are now running the program had been a bumpy one. "Things have not worked quite as smoothly as we would have liked. We've had problems with dispatch, a new company, not being quite as familiar with the area. Issues with the buses also, but we're hoping to get all of those things hammered out." He said weekly meetings were being held, aimed at improving the service. But Ainsworth feels any complaints she's issued to City Hall has fallen on deaf ears. "When I complain to City Hall, they're attitude more or less is live with it. I just don't think that's the right response for people."

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