ELYSBURG - Richard Farr says he understands the many complaints that have been directed toward Rabbittransit in Northumberland County as the agency tries to adapt to a growing business and make use of a pilot program from the state that schedules shared-ride services.

At the same time, Farr, the agency's executive director, wants people to understand that the reason the county got out of the transportation business in mid-2011 and hired Rabbittransit was because it was losing as much as $500,000 a year.

The former operation - what Farr called a "countywide free-for-all" - is simply no longer financially feasible.

But he promised the operation would continue to improve.

"Our goal is to get this right. We, too, are equally frustrated," he said in an interview Tuesday at the agency's Elysburg location. "We may not be able to give them what they want, but we should be able to give them what we promised."

All three county commissioners said this week they believe Rabbittransit is working hard toward solving problems with the scheduling software.

Rabbittransit, part of the York County Transportation Authority, is a public transportation provider serving York, Adams and, since July 1, 2011, Northumberland counties. Nearly 7,000 riders use the service in those three counties each day to get to work, medical facilities, school and activities.

When the agency was hired in Northumberland County, Rabbittransit was granted an emergency 30-cent fare increase by PennDOT, raising the price to $1.45 for a one-way ride.

Like trains, airplanes

Farr says Rabbittransit volunteered for PennDOT's automated computer dispatch software pilot program because of a need for change. A second agency was selected to test the program in Montgomery County, in addition to Rabbittransit's three test counties.

The goal for the statewide program is to streamline the shared-ride process, provide better service, allow transit systems to better coordinate services across county lines and ultimately become more efficient. Success in test counties will determine if the software is put to use statewide.

Thus far, the program, which went live Sept. 10, has been the source of numerous complaints in Northumberland County. A key problem is that the system was readjusting schedules to maximize efficiency when there was a cancelation, but riders were not being told their pick-up times had changed, Farr said.

Riders have shared many tales of trouble, from long waits on the phone to schedule appointments, to missed pickups and excessively long days getting to and from appointments.

Farr promises improvement, but at the same time says a shared-ride program is not, and cannot afford to be, a taxi service. It is a public transit program, he stressed.

Farr compares the shared-ride program to other forms of public transportation, such as airplanes, ferries, trains and buses. A person wouldn't call those places and demand a time that works best for them; rather, they must work within established schedules.

Still, he said he recognizes there are elderly and intellectually disabled citizens who depend on prompt timing for medical appointments, and that consistency and static schedules are required.

$170,000 a month

Rabbittransit's Elysburg branch operates at 61 Tyler Ave., just off Route 487 near Boyer's Food Market, on 1.4 acres of land. The rented property has a 1,400-square-feet office building and a 7,000-square-feet maintenance building, and agency executives are weighing purchase the property.

There are 32 employees at Elysburg, including 25 drivers, four office staff and three maintenance workers. Operations manager is Jacquelyn Klemick, second-in-command/scheduler is James Golden and dispatchers are Kimberly Bartos and Joe Dowkus.

There is a fleet of 18 vehicles, including 16 handicap-accessible, 14-passenger vans and two three-passenger sedans.

Rabbittransit will receive a $375,000 PennDOT grant to replace five of the vehicles, and profit from selling the old vehicles will be placed in a capital reserve account designated for repairs.

The local operation costs $170,000 a month, which includes salaries, fuel, maintenance and rent.

500-600 riders daily

On average, Rabbittransit transports between 500 and 600 customers, mostly female senior citizens, daily in Northumberland County, most in the early morning and mid-afternoon, and mostly Wednesdays and Thursdays. There are at least 230 riders on an average day before 8:30 a.m.

On average, Northumberland County, with a population of 94,528 in 2010, has 150,000 rides per year. York County, population 434,972, has an average of 180,000 rides per year, Farr said, noting how York has more than four times the population but only slightly more yearly riders.

Reservations for rides must be made by 11 a.m. the previous day. If a person's name is not on the manifest, PennDOT prohibits the driver from allowing that person on the van. All riders must fill out an application.

The call center to schedule appointments in all three Rabbittransit service counties is in York. If the central call center gets backed up, a new feature installed over the last two weeks will divert the calls to other sites, where a dispatcher can schedule rides. Local dispatchers in Elysburg can even tap into the queue and answer calls coming from the 570 area code.

There are between 50 and 60 calls a day answered at the Elysburg site, and more than a 1,000 calls a day systemwide, Farr said.

How it works

In order to cover the cost of the shared-ride service, Rabbittransit must transport 2 1/2 to three passengers an hour. If it takes a person 15 minutes by car to travel from point A to point B, it will take them at least 40 minutes by Rabbittransit van - not counting unforeseen factors like longer boarding time for some passengers, road construction, accidents and detours.

Once a rider requests a time, that information is put into the system, which calculates the closest time to the desired time in relation to other scheduled pick-ups in that area. A dispatcher can manually access the schedule and change it as needed.

When a van arrives at a location, there is a four-minute window in which the rider must acknowledge the driver before he leaves. If a driver is unable to reach a person on time, Rabbittransit is contracted with local cab companies to provide transportation, and the rider is charged Rabbittransit fees.

According to the new system, every ride is tracked by GPS and can be monitored from the Elysburg homebase. Dispatchers know exactly where a van is at any given moment, what time it arrived at a destination and its duration there.

In order to maximize efficiency, Farr said suggestive guidelines for riders, such as scheduling appointments for later morning rather than early morning, are being developed. Since the slower times are between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., it is more likely to be picked up closer to the time a person requests.

Farr said it can be challenging with some elderly riders. He said some will call multiple times to schedule the same ride because they've forgotten, or they might miss a ride because they don't remember they had one scheduled.

Deliver what's promised

Nonetheless, Farr said he understands the frustrations and that his agency is working to correct scheduling problems. He realizes the importance of the service.

"If you don't have mobility, there is no freedom," he said.

Despite the past month of trouble, Farr notes Rabbittransit has had 13 months of good service and is now working to "correct old problems with new ideas."

"We recognize the fiscal constraints of what we do. If we can't provide service and keep it under control, that passenger won't have transportation to complain about," he said.

"We're not happy, and we're not going to rest until we deliver what we promised we'd deliver."

Leaders: Be patient

SUNBURY - A meeting was held Tuesday among Nothumberland County commissioners and department heads from Area Agency on Aging, Adult Probation and Behavioral Health and Intellectual Services to discuss problems and solutions regarding Rabbittransit and the county's shared-ride service.

"I'm asking seniors in Northumberland County to have a little patience. In the long run, they'll be better off," Commissioner Vinny Clausi said Wednesday. "We're going to give them (Rabbittransit) a little more time to perfect the program."

Commissioners Stephen Bridy and Rick Shoch said they were both satisfied with the meeting.

"As far as the process, they're working out the kinks and they've come a long way," Bridy said.