Handi-Transit contracts should have waited until 'oppressive' system is improved, critics say

People with disabilities wanted Winnipeg to hold off on awarding $17-million worth of new Handi-Transit contracts until Manitoba's ombudsman completes a report into allegations the system is "unjust, oppressive and unreasonable" to its clients. Councillors didn't agree.

City awards $17M in contracts before report into complaints is complete

Winnipeg awarded $17 million worth of new Handi-Transit contracts before the completion of an ombudsman's report into complaints the system fails its users. (Samuel Rancourt/CBC)

People with disabilities urged Winnipeg to hold off on awarding $17 million worth of new Handi-Transit contracts until Manitoba's ombudsman completes a report into allegations the system is "unjust, oppressive and unreasonable" to its clients.

On Friday, city council's public works committee awarded a pair of seven-year contracts to the companies that operate the Handi-Transit system.

Winnipeg's existing Handi-Transit contracts expire on Dec. 15. The public works committee had the sole authority to award the new contracts, worth $8.9 million and $8.4 million, respectively.

Winnipeg's Independent Living Resource Centre wanted the city to hold off until the Manitoba ombudsman completes a report into the organization's wide-ranging 2016 complaint about Handi-Transit.

That complaint alleges the system fails to serve its passengers, follows unfair policies and sometimes violates human rights.​

"In one instance, a person who is blind was intentionally dropped off at a random location due to a disagreement between the passenger and the driver," the 2016 complaint read.

Other specific cases listed in the complaint included a Handi-Transit user missing a family member's funeral, an allegation of a driver insisting on hugs from clients and a passenger soiling themselves "due to not being able to return to their home in time for their peri-care call."

Allen Mankewich, who handles government relations for the Independent Living Resource Centre, said Winnipeg Transit runs the risk of ensuring Handi-Transit service remains subpar by awarding contracts before it receives recommendations from the Manitoba ombudsman.

The ombudsman's report is nearing completion, he said.

"We should wait for the results of the ombudsman's complaint. Otherwise we might be locking ourselves into another seven years of huge issues with the service," Mankewich said before the contracts were awarded.

"If the ombudsman comes back and says, 'Hey, look. There are major issues with the system. We've got to make major changes,' [and] if the City of Winnipeg decides that the operators that they're entering into contracts with can't meet the standards the ombudsman might set out, then what do we do in that situation?"

Allen Mankewich says Winnipeg Transit risks locking itself into seven years of subpar service. (CBC)

St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard, who chairs council's public works committee, said holding off the Handi-Transit contract awards could jeopardize the entire system.

"There is a risk that if we delay it, it will result in service interruptions or other costs for the City of Winnipeg," Allard said.

Winnipeg will examine the ombudsman's report when it's finished, he said.

The union representing Winnipeg Transit operators said the city should allow the Handi-Transit service to be delivered in-house, starting with areas at the fringes of the city.

"The city is now starting to approve two contracts for seven years? That doesn't make any sense at all," said Aleem Chaudhary, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.  "Why are they not waiting for this report just to see the deficiencies in the system?"

Friday's meeting was the last for the public works committee before the municipal election Oct. 24.

- With files from Teghan Beaudette


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