FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County's efforts to put the brakes on problems with on-demand transit service aren't coming soon enough for Mark Conte.
A 90-year-old World War II veteran, Conte has a litany of complaints about Maruti Fleet and Management LLC. The Orlando-based company has been providing door-to-door and fixed-route transit service in Okaloosa County since October 2015 under a five-year, $2.6 million per year contract.
A resident of Westminster Manor, a 53-unit affordable housing community, Conte uses the $2-each-way service — or tries to use it — two or three times each month. He guesses a large number of Westminster Manor residents similarly rely on the service.
"I'd guess at least half of them," Conte said. "We have people here who are on dialysis, who are on pacemakers."
Earlier this month, the commission approved the establishment of a transit department, moving supervision of transit activities from the Growth Management Department.
Conte has talked with county commissioners about the on-demand service, but was unaware of the county's recent decision to create a transit department.
Conte brings some impressive credentials to his concerns over local on-demand transit service. He ran an airport shuttle and limousine service in Philadelphia for years before moving to Florida.
Among Conte's specific complaints about Maruti is a recent trip to Mar Walt Drive. He was taken to his doctor's office for a noon appointment, but the bus failed to show up at 2:30 to pick him up. At 5:30 p.m., a nurse took him to the nearby Walmart, where he took a regular transit bus back home, arriving at 7 p.m.
In another instance, Conte was scheduled for pickup from the local Veterans Affairs clinic at 2:30 p.m. When the bus didn't come, he called the dispatcher, but the call went to voicemail. At 5 p.m., a VA volunteer took him to Uptown Station, where he caught a bus to Westminster Manor, arriving at 6 p.m.
There was one doctor's appointment for which he was never picked up, Conte said, "because the reservationist put down the wrong day."
Conte doesn't fault the drivers, but blames the reservation agents and dispatchers. He's also somewhat critical of Okaloosa County commissioners, notwithstanding their recent move to address transit issues.
"We elected them; they're supposed to take care of us," Conte said.
Maruti's performance has prompted numerous complaints to the county. Company officials said early last year they were meeting with passengers and representatives of clinics and elderly living facilities. Conte said he was aware of a couple of meetings with Maruti representatives. He also said he's complained in the past about the service, and did see some short-lived improvement.
"For two months, they were OK," he said.
At the commission's July 17 meeting, Chairman Graham Fountain and other commissioners agreed that Maruti's service has been uneven, with brief periods of improvement counterbalanced with poor performance.
“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, Fountain said.