Friday, May 13, 2011

In Virginia's Fairfax County, bus stops need to be upgraded to be ADA compliant but county doesn't have the money

From Fairfax Times:

Getting to some of Fairfax County's 4,000 bus stops can be challenging for anyone, especially people with disabilities.

"It's absurd that anyone in the county should have to stand in a patch of gravel on the side of the road [to wait for a bus]," said Supervisor Jeffrey McKay (D-Lee), chairman of the Board of Supervisors Transportation Committee. "Some of the bus stops aren't even on a sidewalk. ... There is no bench, there is no overhang. In most cases, there is no [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility at all."

This means many people with disabilities and seniors who could otherwise use public transit have to rely on services such as MetroAccess, which provides rides to people unable to use bus or rail service. The lack of sidewalks and shelters also makes riding the bus an unattractive option for people of all abilities, McKay said.

Fairfax County wants to improve its bus stops by adding features such as shelters, benches and wheelchair ramps. But county officials said Virginia Department of Transportation rules make the process longer and more expensive.

VDOT requires an environmental review for each bus stop upgrade project and it reviews each bus shelter as if it were a building, said Steve Yaffe, chairman of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council's Mobility and Transportation Committee, one of several county organizations that reviewed the bus stop issue.

This adds about a year to the bus stop development process and increases the cost by about $10,000, Yaffe said.

"It reduces the number of bus stops that are improved, and it is taking away bond money," he said.

The county has a pool of transportation bond funding set aside for bus stop improvements.

But VDOT said Fairfax County established an agreement with the department a decade ago to allow for a streamlined approval process for bus shelters. The county gets one permit each year to work on bus stops in any area of the county, VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris said.

If there are additional things the agency can do to speed up the process, VDOT officials are willing to look into it, she said.

"We don't want to create any obstacles," she said. "If we have a particular issue, we will certainly work to smooth that out."

The lack of accessible bus stops increases the county's costs for paratransit services, Yaffe said. Based on what he has gleaned from talking to officials at MetroAccess, he estimates that as many as half of the people using the service could get around independently if they could access a bus stop.

In April, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors expressed support for a recommendation of the Governor's Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, which suggested allowing localities to review and issue permits for bus shelters and bus stop improvements.

County staff is close to reaching agreement with VDOT on a streamlined process, McKay said. The board's Transportation Committee will receive an update on the bus stop issue at a future meeting.

"We need to make transit simpler and easier to use and much more dignified," McKay said. "If you do that, you are going to have constant growth in people who are using the bus."