By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

The dispatcher is tense. She sighs heavily and fidgets in her chair while a customer makes demands that she cannot meet.

This is definitely the most stressful job Ive ever had, said dispatcher Terri Herrera who works for Redwood Coast Transit and must coordinate bus stops. Its like putting pieces of a puzzle together, but they all talk.

At one point, Herrera, who is one of only two dispatchers for the company, throws her hands up in surrender after dealing with a customer demanding free service because the bus was late.

This is the state of Del Norte Countys Dial-A-Ride a service that some officials say is nearing meltdown.

Dial-A-Ride is designed as a prearranged door-to-door bus service. Redwood Coast Transit also has an hourly fixed-route bus service in which people catch the bus at specific locations at scheduled times. Both are managed and funded by the county and the City of Crescent City.

But Dial-A-Ride is overloaded, while the fixed-route service could accommodate more passengers.

Fixed-route ridership has been steadily increasing, and were very pleased with it. But theres plenty of room for extra ridership, said Crescent City Finance Director Carol Leuthold, adding the the fixed route is a fairly new service.

In many counties, public Dial-A-Ride transportation is reserved for the handicapped and elderly. In Del Norte, its available to everyone, putting extra pressure on the system.

Theres so much pressure (and) so much demand for service in a timely manner, Leuthold said.

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In an attempt to solve the problem, Leuthold recommended a strategy to get riders to switch services. She suggested raising some fares for Dial-A-Ride while reducing or eliminating some fixed-route fares. The Crescent City City Council deadlocked on a two-to-two vote and sent the proposal back for more research.

Although the council didnt pass the first proposed solution, dispatchers and drivers agree something has to be done.

They (Dial-A-Ride passengers) get very upset. You learn not to take any of this personal; you have to, Herrera said regarding times when customers are not picked up promptly or have to be turned away. They should be glad we are trying our hardest just to get there. Bus driver Jean Swarts has driven for both the countys fixed-route bus service and Dial-A-Ride and agreed the latter is more stressful.

Sometimes they dont realize this is also share-a-ride, said Swarts. You have other people you have to pick up, and where youre going changes every day.

Herrera appeared calmer after she spoke to another customer, scheduling a ride for the next day.

That was a lady who called for tomorrow, Herrera said. These are the people we try to guarantee their rides. But then we get people who call and want a ride right now. We tell them well work you in, but five minutes later they call back and say, Where is my ride?

Herrera said she feels bad if someone calls and she cant squeeze them in, regardless of whether the person scheduled a ride ahead of time.

A lot of the people we give rides to are (from) mental health and drug and alcohol. They really have no alternatives, said Herrera. You cant just leave people stranded.