'You have to sneak in humanity,' says TriMet LIFT driver

'You have to sneak in humanity,' says TriMet LIFT driver »Play Video
A dose of bad luck left David Wallace a paraplegic last fall. He says a TriMet LIFT bus driver wanted to drop him off more than two miles from his home after he realized he wasn't supposed to be on the bus.
GRESHAM, Ore. -- David Wallace of Gresham is a proud grandfather who'd worked in construction for 30 years. He's not accustomed to needing help. Yet there he was, 2.5 miles from home, realizing he wasn't supposed to be on a TriMet LIFT bus, and that he was about to miss an important appointment at his house about his wheelchair. 
 
A string of health issues had put him in the hospital for four months. It was apparently during his hospital stay and while he was on medication that this LIFT ride had been booked. Confused, he got on board thinking the LIFT vehicle was transporting him to the wheelchair company to make some needed adjustments for his mobility. Once he realized it was not, he asked the driver to take him home.
 
Wallace said she contacted her dispatcher who told her to leave him right there -- near an auto body shop in Gresham. Wallace refused to get off the bus. Having been out of the hospital for just a week, Wallace said he had to advocate for himself. 
 
"My white blood cell count was so low, my doctor told me catching a cold could kill. I told the driver you can't just abandon me by the side of the road," Wallace recalled.
 
Wallace said the dispatcher called 911 reporting the incident. Eventually, he said two Gresham police officers arrived and convinced the dispatcher the driver should simply take him home. That's what happened a full two hours after the ordeal began.
 
"I would think in a humanity type of thing, a person would say get that guy back home ... back to where he needs to be, no matter what the reason."
 
Wallace fears for other passengers who don't have the ability to speak up.
 
"I understand they're all in the business to make money. It's naturally important; it always was in my industry. But there's gotta be a balance because you don't have that balance, you might as well not be doing that service."
 
LIFT bus operator Lisa Huffman has driven for 22 years and has transported thousands of passengers. She said unfortunately, cases like this are common.
 
"You absolutely have to sneak in humanity and you have to be able to discern that yes this is your employer but God is ultimately watching you," said Huffman.
 
She said drivers and dispatchers are under tremendous pressure from TriMet to stay on schedule, and drivers who make exceptions for the sake of humanity have been penalized, even sent home.
 
Huffman works for First Transit, the company TriMet contracts with to provide the LIFT service drivers. She points to an audit ordered by the Amalgamated Transit Union that indicates TriMet would save money by bringing the service in house. She believes TriMet contracts the service out to avoid lawsuits over vulnerable passengers.
 
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch disputes both of those claims.
 
"We contract lifts because it's a very expensive service. If it's costing us 31 dollars a ride and we do a million rides a year in that program, it would be much more expensive if we had that in house with our benefits package. We've done independent surveys and assessments," she said.
 
Fetsch also answered questions about the incident On Your Side Investigator Chelsea Kopta reported last week about the 92-year-old great-grandmother left at an abandoned building in Beaverton. She said TriMet is "looking to clarify our (standard operating procedures) to ensure we provide quality service and this type of situation doesn't happen again."