Four years after its near collapse, TAPS Public Transit continues to provide transportation services to those in need across Texoma as a much leaner, focused operation. Following a financial crisis that nearly ended the growing public transit provider, officials with TAPS say the organization has learned from its mistakes and is living within its means.
“The TAPS of today is sized correctly and suited for providing rides to the indigent population,” Grayson County Judge Bill Magers said. “It is a much smaller, focused operation now that we have stepped away from things we should have never done.”
In the months leading up to the fall of 2015, things outwardly appeared to be going well for the rural transit provider. The agency had recently announced plans to build a new multi-million dollar regional transportation hub and had been awarded a contract to provide non-emergency Medicaid transportation.
Its CEO Brad Underwood had also been recognized for his efforts in growing the regional transit provider.
This all came to a screeching halt in August and September when cracks began to show. Starting in August, the agency began to report delays and increased call restrictions for its on-demand services. The next month Underwood announced his resignation from the agency during a board of director’s meeting in which the finance committee gave an update on the agency’s cash flow and financial status.
This was the first financial report that the board had seen in about two years, Magers later said.
“In the short time that I’ve been (on the board), I have seen some things that concern me,” Magers said in 2015. “Wednesday’s meeting convinced me that there has been some gross mismanagement of finances.”
Today, Magers attributes a lot of the issues that faced TAPS to mismanagement by leaders at the time. TAPS is based on a reimbursement model where expenses for transportation are reimbursed through grants and other funding sources.
Magers said the agency deviated from its original purpose as a para-transit service when it attempted to add additional services including fixed-route routes, charter services and attempted to move into the larger Collin County market.
“They did not know how to operate and the board was complicit,” he said.
In the months that followed, TAPS financial situation continued to grow worse as creditors, including banks and other vendors, came forward seeking payment for outstanding debt. The crisis led TAPS to abandon its new fixed-route services, which included trips to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, and an exit from the Collin County market by the end of the year.
TAPS Access, the company’s Medicaid transportation branch, was also an early casualty following concerns by the Health and Human Services Commission in to the financial management of the program. The closure of the program left many operators and drivers wondering when and if they would be receiving their final paycheck.
This all culminated with the suspension of services for 90 days in early January 2016 when calls were redirected to neighboring providers in order to allow officials time to start reorganizing the agency and find a new operations provider. The recovery of TAPS arguably started later that spring when Transdev was awarded the operations contract and brought with it $400,000 in capital to keep TAPS operational.
“We should have renamed TAPS as Lazarus because TAPS was dead,” Magers said.
Since that time, TAPS has been able to resolve many of its major debts, including those to its former operations provider First Transit, the Texas Municipal League and other creditors. Now, the agency is looking back at its revolving accounts to determine the extent of its remaining debts.
The statute of limitation on some debts extends for four years, but Magers said he is uncertain how this would apply to revolving accounts. As of Oct. 1, Magers estimated that TAPS still maintains about $4 million in potential liabilities, but it has come a long way from the nearly $8 million it owed just four years ago.
With the trimming of excess services that cost the agency more than they brought in, Magers said TAPS has been able to return to the entity it once was: a smaller rural provider that assists those in need through trips to work, doctor’s appointments and the grocery store.
“What we’ve really done was take TAPS back to what it should be,” he said.
Through limiting its expenses and living within its means, Magers said TAPS has been able to regain the confidence of all of its federal and state funding sources. While the agency isn’t nearly the size it was years ago, it is in a far better and healthier position, he said.
Transdev Manager Josh Walker is one of the few employees who were retained in the transition. While he originally worked in safety, security and risk, Walker now heads the agency in its recovery.
Walker said it is difficult to compare TAPS’ operations to 2014 and 2015 because it no longer has access to its previous software and records from that period are difficult, if not impossible, to find.
However, Since the transition to Transdev, Walker said ridership is up 22 percent, but the number of service hours TAPS has provided has only gone up 11 percent. This represents TAPS becoming far more efficient than it once was and being better able to manage its trips.
“One key thing is if you look at the passengers per hour, we are moving more people on a per hour basis,” he said.
Other changes have affected the agency’s culture and attitude on maintenance and safety, which were not major focuses prior to the restructure. While minor accidents were common place, happening a few times a week, TAPS has only had two preventable accidents this year, Walker said.
Despite the improvements Walker said the agency still isn’t back to where it was prior to the collapse. Fixed routes are still not in the cards, and may never be, and support from some local groups and organizations have dropped. Despite this, the agency still lives on to provide affordable transportation to those in need.
“The biggest enjoyment is that I can see we are helping people,” Walker said. “I like to say we are able to connect people to life.”