Alberetta Shepard spent quite a bit of time waiting for SEPTA’s Customized Community Transportation to pick her up last week. It was more than an hour late.

“That’s not because of the pandemic at all, because it happens on a regular basis,” said Shepard, chairperson for the Philadelphia Shared-Ride Program Advisory Council. “Not all the time, but it does happen.”

Improvements are underway for the paratransit service, which transports seniors and those with disabilities, according to SEPTA. A software upgrade this year aims to boost CCT Connect’s accuracy and timeliness, and an app-like feature is in the works. The SEPTA Key card, already rolled out on buses, subways, trolleys, and Regional Rail, is set for a CCT pilot in September.

While it had planned for the enhancements, CCT has adjusted operations as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on. But that has raised new questions. Some riders wonder why same-day trip reservations, which started as the crisis began, were suddenly stopped, and why cash is acceptable on CCT but barred elsewhere on SEPTA to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“Why would they ask it of one group,” Shepard asked, “and don’t ask of another?”

Keys and cash

SEPTA key cards advertised at Jefferson Station in Philadelphia on May 30, 2019.
Elizabeth Robertson / File Photograph
SEPTA key cards advertised at Jefferson Station in Philadelphia on May 30, 2019.

CCT provides two door-to-door services to registered customers: a shared-ride program for those 65 and older, and an Americans With Disability Act program that can be used by those “who are functionally unable to use the regular accessible transit system for all or some of their transportation needs,” according to SEPTA.

SEPTA introduced Key, its smart-fare card, in 2016. The rollout has been notoriously slow and plagued with problems, with the authority only recently allowing Regional Rail riders to pay with Travel Wallet, its pay-as-you-go feature.

“Here we are, August 2020, and we still haven’t heard anything about the SEPTA Key card for people who use CCT,” Latoya Maddox, an independent living specialist at Liberty Resources Inc. and chairperson of SEPTA’s Advisory Committee for Accessible Transportation, said last week.

But because the Key rollout on CCT is behind the other modes, the transition will have fewer seams, said David Rogers, chief officer of CCT for SEPTA.

“They’re not going to go through a lot of the bugs and uncertainty that the bus and the subway had encountered when they kicked this stuff off years ago,” he said.

The authority will start “friendly-user testing” this fall, with rollout on CCT targeted for the end of the year. By then, SEPTA also plans to upgrade CCT’s scheduling software, RouteMatch, which it says will improve its ability to do “more realistic scheduling,” Rogers said. It needs the upgrade before introducing “essentially a CCT app” where people can book rides on a phone or computer, he said.

SEPTA Key would have been a convenient option for CCT’s $4.25 rides over recent months. On SEPTA transit services, cashiers are still not accepting cash, and the authority was quick to tout the “contactless, hygienically friendly” Key early in the pandemic.

“How is it that when we get on the El, or the bus … you can’t pay cash, you got to use the SEPTA Key card?” Maddox said. “Or reduced transit fare card? But for CCT, you’re still having to give up cash?” It’s especially problematic as CCT’s riders are generally at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Unlike the Market-Frankford Line or a bus, physical interaction is a necessary part of CCT Connect, said Cassandra West, manager of program eligibility and regulatory compliance. Drivers provide “arm assistance” or push wheelchairs. A majority of riders don’t use cash but a TrailPass instead, West added.

“We don’t have any alternative,” West said. “The cashiers aren’t handling cash, but the person can walk over to a Key kiosk and put their cash in and get a Quick Trip ticket. We just don’t have that ability on CCT.”

The ADA paratransit service waived fares from April through mid-May, to mirror when SEPTA stopped accepting payment on buses and trolleys in an effort to put distance between drivers and riders.

While Philadelphia adopted a cashless-store ban last year, barring paper bills has been a common mitigation measure during the pandemic. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that bank employees wash their hands after handling cash. But the virus is mostly transmitted through person-to-person contact, the CDC notes.

On CCT, other measures have been enacted to reduce the spread of the virus. Drivers and riders have to wear masks, while on-board capacity is limited to no more than 50%. Vehicles are cleaned daily.

Same-day rides

CCT Connect has shifted operations to accommodate riders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
CCT Connect has shifted operations to accommodate riders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Colmon Holmes, vice chairperson of SEPTA’s Advisory Committee for Accessible Transportation, said he was surprised and disappointed when the authority halted same-day trip reservations in early June, coinciding with the region turning “green” in its reopening program.

In an age where rideshares can be hailed in mere minutes, CCT reservations must be made at least a day in advance. But there are many times when riders don’t know they’re in need of paratransit services a day before, Holmes said. That was the impetus for SEPTA to get “special permission” from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to offer day-of service at the start of the pandemic, to ensure riders could get to food and medicine.

“I am so outraged that the promise that they made to us during the worst period of the pandemic has not been kept,” Holmes said. He was under the impression that the convenient service was there to stay.

It’s not sustainable “because the system isn’t designed that way,” West said. The authority was recently rejected for a federal grant that would pilot a new program providing same-day paratransit service. West called the rejection a “crushing disappointment.”

“We really feel like this is something we got to get off the ground,” West said.

CCT is still sorting through issues it faces from a malware attack on SEPTA’s servers three weeks ago. It is currently only accepting next-day reservations to shorten calls and take more requests, West said.

“It was a nice courtesy that they extended, really,” Shepard, the shared-ride program advisory council chairperson, said of same-day service. “But whether or not if it’s going to be for the rest of our life, I don’t think so.”