PSTA’s paratransit procurement rules violated, six employees failed to notice. Program in shambles and getting worse.

“Bonnie, do you find the GOIN’ proposal technically acceptable?” PSTA’s Director of Procurement Al Burns asked Bonnie Epstein, PSTA’s Director of Mobility Services. “I mean…” Epstein answered and paused. The issue at hand was PSTA’s procurement of software to operate its paratransit services. The purchasing decision was being made in an April, 2019 proposal evaluation committee meeting (full video).

“It’s a yes or no,” Burns said after Epstein hesitated. With that light pressure, Epstein responded “no.” The other four voting members on the proposal evaluation committee also answered “no.”

“With that said, the GOIN’s proposal shall be rejected and receive no further consideration for award,” Burns said while reading from a computer screen.

Egg on face

However, PSTA’s own RFP (Request For Proposal) showed that it wasn’t a “yes or no” question as Burns claimed. In the preceding seven minutes, Burns had twice read the following relevant section from the RFP:

“Technical proposals may be determined to be ‘Acceptable,’ ‘Potentially Acceptable’ (that is, susceptible of being made “Acceptable”), or “Unacceptable”. Technical proposals evaluated as technically ‘Unacceptable’ shall be rejected and will receive no further consideration for award.

By incorrectly making it a yes/no question, Burns made the members of the proposal evaluation committee fail to consider whether a proposal that was not “technically acceptable” could be “potentially acceptable.”

Next, the committee considered a proposal from Clearwater software company Tran Ware which already was providing paratransit software. Burns read the same passage from the RFP a third time, and once again improperly limited the proposal classification options to two options instead of the three given in the RFP.

The contract was ultimate awarded to Spare Labs, a software company based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Since Spare Labs took over the paratransit software contract on July 1, 2021, the have been many problems and rider complaints. We will explore the underlying causes of those problems in a future article.

However, it is safe to say that the problems are already costing taxpayers a lot of money in the form of underutilization of cost-effective and already contracted dedicated transit vehicle fleet, and overutilization of the more costly MOD (Mobility On Demand” solution in the form of Lyft and Uber.

The Guardian contacted Burns with questions about the April 2021 proposal committee evaluation meeting. We received an automated email back saying he was out of the office.

We then contacted the five voting members of the prposal evaluation committee, all of them PSTA officers, directors or managers, and we asked questions about the meeting. We asked them via text message to acknowledge receipt of our emails. Only one did (Ross Silvers), and none answered our questions by our publication deadline

We asked if the voting committee members felt pressured by Burns or anybody else to classify the proposals as they did. We also wanted to why they did not object to the incorrect process when the relevant section of the RFP had been read to them by Burns multiple times before their votes.

PSTA also hired consultants to help them evaluate the paratransit software proposals. One of them was Christian Kent, the founder of and sole principal at Transit Management Consulting in Virginia Beach, VA. On its website, the firm says that Kent is “a nationally recognized expert in the provision of ADA paratransit service.” Yet Kent also failed in evaluating the two rejected paratransit proposals.

Speaking of the GOIN’ and Tran Ware proposals, Kent said that there was “some detail on the operational process that was not present in the proposal in sufficient form really for us to be able to evaluate and verify whether the software would do all of the things that were requested in the Scope of Work.” (Editors’s note: PSTA uses the term “Statement of Work” (SOW), not “scope of work.”)

Kent then specifically cited “the kind of preventive measures that the RFP sought to use to sustain compliant service” as as being absent in the two proposals rejected in the fashion described above. Kent called these “preventive measures” and other aspects “somewhat critical.”

However, the SOW did not call for any “preventive measures” of any kind. In fact, the word “preventive” appears nowhere in the RFP.

“We have seen an uptick in efficiency,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said when asked about the use of the Spare Labs software at the latest PSTA board meeting. “Well, not really,” PSTA board member Vince Cocks immediately shot back. Cocks is a retired paratransit dispatcher.

“In January, efficiency is down to 0.76 and the goal is 0.85,” Cocks continued. “And 0.85 is a pretty weak goal anyway because that is less than one ride picked up per driver per hour.”

Cocks has publicly been asking tough questions about PSTA’s paratransit effort in general and the Spare Labs contract in particular for the last several months.

Cocks isn’t the only asking tough questions, Pinellas County Commissioner Brian Scott and Chris Latvala are also asking increasingly pointed questions.

The Guardian continues to report on the PSTA’s seemingly never-ending deception, problems and incompetence.

Or are we being too hard on PSTA?

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish articles.