SHALIMAR — Okaloosa County officials hope the formation of a county transit department will help fix ongoing problems with Maruti Fleet and Management LLC.
As the contracted operator of the Emerald Coast Rider public transportation system, Orlando-based Maruti provides fixed-route transit service and door-to-door transit service for the poor and disabled.
The County Commission on Tuesday approved the establishment of the new department, which will have a transit division manager and be directed by Greg Kisela, deputy county administrator of operations. They will be tasked with working with Maruti to improve operations and overall customer satisfaction.
The administrative changes stem from the commission’s workshop in late May on transit issues and from cost-free recommendations from the Institute of Senior Professionals advisory group at Northwest Florida State College.
The transit manager position could be filled in September and will include a salary between about $59,000 and $99,000 that, at least in the first year, will be paid for with a Federal Transit Administration grant.
The county’s five-year, roughly $2.6 million per-year contract with Maruti started in October 2015 and has been overseen by the county Growth Management Department. The bulk of the contract cost is paid for with federal grant money.
During much of its time serving the county, Maruti has been the subject of numerous complaints from passengers about late or missed pickups, employees not answering the phone and other problems.
In response to such complaints, Maruti officials early last year said they were meeting with passengers and officials from clinics and nursing homes to address their concerns.
Company officials also said they had hired 17 additional bus drivers and two additional dispatchers and were working on properly routing calls.
“We’ve made some tremendous improvements, but we have a way to go yet,” Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, who is the liaison between the commission and the Transportation Disadvantaged Coordinating Board, said at the workshop.
The transit system has seen a roughly 7 percent reduction in its number of fixed routes and a 26 percent increase in its door-to-door service during the past two or three years, Kisela said.
On another note, Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert said the county’s annual portion of funding for the system has dropped over the past several years from about $325,000 to $93,000.
“I think eventually this system will pay for itself,” Ketchel said. “I think the frustration has been with the operators.”
Commission Vice-Chairman Kelly Windes and Commission Chairman Graham Fountain agreed.
The transit system still “is not working for the customer,” Windes said.
Fountain said that after some brief periods of improvement, “We’re back again where we’re leaving people, missing people, forgetting people, not getting people on time where they need to be, or else they’re left somewhere for an hour or two after a place closes and they’re 90 years old” with medical issues.