Sunday, August 30, 2009

Texas disability advocates say Regional Transportation Authority board needs more diversity, like its bus riders

From the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas:

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — If you were unemployed, without a car, and looking for a job cleaning office buildings at night, could you rely on a Regional Transportation Authority bus to get you to and from work?

Or if you were disabled, would every bus stop in Corpus Christi be accessible to your wheelchair?

The answer to both questions is no, according to current and former members of the authority’s board of directors. Some of those board members say there is at least a partial explanation.

Many of the RTA’s riders are poor, disabled, elderly or any combination of the three. Those characteristics do not describe the board of directors that governs the transportation authority.

“We don’t have anybody on the board who uses the bus,” said Judy Telge, a board member.

Telge and former board member Abel Alonzo (pictured), a wheelchair user, say that if the board had more diversity, it might offer different types of service to meet the needs of those who need the bus most.

Some board members say many options for expanded service are dependent on new funds.

Telge points out that most of the fixed line routes go through the city’s Westside, which has a large population of bus users. But service stops in the evening, meaning some workers in lower-wage jobs, in restaurants, as security guards, as office cleaners, might not have access to transportation.

“I don’t think that at any point in its 25 years the RTA board has reflected its ridership,” said John Longoria, a member of the RTA board and CCISD trustee. “But it reflects the majority of the community.”

He said many of the decisions the board makes are constrained by funding.

“It’s a factor of dollars,” Longoria said. “It’s geared toward the bulk of ridership. There’s no governmental entity that can commit to every demand.”

The transportation authority estimates 74 percent of its riders don’t own a vehicle and 41 percent of riders use the service to get to work.

Of the 11 RTA board members, the city appoints five, one of whom represents the interests of the transportation-disadvantaged. The rules, however, don’t say the representative must actually be poor or disabled.

Telge fills that role because, as founder of the Coastal Bend Center for Independent Living, she has a professional history of advocating for people with disabilities. She said the RTA has made giant strides in serving disabled riders. But she said the board only began paying significant attention to those issues when her predecessor, Crystal Lyons, joined the board in 2004. Lyons has a son who uses a wheelchair and is now chairwoman of the board. When she joined, she was appointed to advocate for the transportation-disadvantaged.

All buses in the RTA’s fleet can accommodate people with disabilities. But not all stops can do so. The result is that some people with disabilities rely on the more-expensive para-transit service because they cannot get to a bus stop.

Telge credits Lyons with being the first to address this problem.

Lyons said that in some cases, that isn’t the RTA’s fault that patrons can’t get to the bus. It’s the city’s fault.

The RTA formed a plan to coordinate access issues with city officials. The organization is using half of its $6.3 million in federal economic stimulus money to pay for that plan. The organization also will spend about $3 million more from another federal source.

Alonzo says having one appointee represent the interests of the transportation-disadvantaged isn’t enough. He has lobbied state lawmakers to change the law so that as many as three people come from that category.

Appointees have tended to be politically connected. When Democrats controlled the Nueces County Commissioners Court, the county’s three appointees tended to have some connection to U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi. Now that Republicans have a majority, two of three appointees are GOP activists.

Alonzo said he had hoped with the transition in Nueces County, commissioners would appoint people with an interest in public transportation. But, he said, those board spots are part of the spoils of victory, and he can’t blame Republicans for doing what Democrats did for two decades.

Lyons said she values the board members because they are active in the community.

“Diversity is fine, but you have to have people who will represent and be active,” Lyons said. “They need to be effective. Sometimes a mother of a person with a disability might be better than a person with a disability.”