Monday, November 23, 2009

Indiana wheelchair user pushes for better access to commuter trains

From The News-Dispatch in Michigan City, Ind.

BEVERLY SHORES, Ind. - Al Piening built his new home across the highway from the Beverly Shores train station because he thought he'd be able to easily ride the South Shore into Chicago from there. But he can't - he uses a wheelchair.

When Piening, a 40-year-old retired psychologist from Oak Park, Ill., was looking for a place to build his house, he said the Beverly Shores station once had a lift to transport people in wheelchairs to and from the train doors. Right about the time he moved in three years ago, it was removed. Then he was told he'd have to use another station, one that's handicapped accessible.

"I can't believe that, in 2009, there is still this mentality of 'separate but equal,'" Piening said. "It's like saying to a black person, 'You can't eat here, but you can eat there.'"

NITCD officials say the Americans With Disabilities Act does not require them to provide access at all South Shore stations. According to the law, commuter train lines are only required to provide handicapped access at "key stations," which are larger and have high ridership.

The South Shore provides handicapped access at six stations it has identified as the busiest, said John Parsons, NICTD planning and marketing director, including at Dune Park, the next stop west of Beverly Shores.

"ADA rules vary based on the mode of transportation," Parsons said. "For commuter rail, you are required to provide access at key stations. This station has never been handicapped accessible."

Despite his limited access, Piening got off and on the train at Beverly Shores until April 2008, when a letter from L. Charles Lukmann, NICTD attorney, instructed him to stop.

"Our ADA accessible stations are clearly listed in our timetable and system map which includes both the Dune Park and Portage/Ogden Dunes stations. Should you desire to utilize the South Shore Railroad, you should avail yourself of the aforementioned ADA accessible stations as you will not be permitted, under any circumstances, to board or disembark at Beverly Shores in the future," the letter stated.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, NICTD is not required to board passengers if the action presents a safety concern for the passenger or crew, which it clearly does at Beverly Shores, Lukmann wrote.

"This is not about safety. You can clearly see the Beverly Shores station is accessible in every way," Piening said, noting the open sidewalks and wide station doors. There were even two handicapped spaces in the parking lot there, he said, until they took the signs out. There is still faded blue paint marking where the spots stood.

Parsons said the lift at Beverly Shores was only there temporarily while NICTD was busing passengers around construction at Dune Park. But that isn't true, said Teresa Torres, executive director of Merrillville-based non-profit Everybody Counts, a group dedicated to the empowerment and independence of people with disabilities.

"It was there for quite a while. I knew people who used it for two years," she said. "Even if that was true, why would you take away an accessibility measure after you've provided it?"

Piening brought his case to Everybody Counts after he received the letter from NICTD, he said.

"I am not asking for any special treatment. All I want is for a lift to be provided," he said.

However, Parsons said NICTD has no intention of making the Beverly Shores station handicapped accessible - now or in the future.

"It takes longer to board passengers using the crank lifts, which delays the trains. And we already have accessible stations in close proximity," he said. "Our plans have been reviewed and approved, they are in compliance with federal law."

Crank lifts, which have to be manually cranked by a train conductor, are still used for handicapped access at South Shore's station on Carroll Avenue, as well as in South Bend, Gary and Dune Park, Parsons said. The preferred method of access is raised platforms, which have been installed in Hammond and Hegewisch, and were also built in East Chicago when that station was modified even though it is not a "key station."

"Those cost $2 to $3 million to build, though, and we are trying to phase those in," he said.

Even though NICTD is considered to be following ADA regulations, Torres said neglecting to provide access at all its stations is "voluntary ignorance" of what the ADA was meant to do. It all stems from a lack of recognition on the part of politicians and community leaders that access is a serious problem for wheelchair-bound individuals.

"The law was meant to ensure equal access, not for people to use as an excuse to mandate separate service," she said.