Sunday, January 24, 2010

Massachusetts teen strives to make T station accessible

From The Concord Journal:

CONCORD, Mass. - A handful of stairs are cramping Gordie Slater’s style.

A Concord Academy day student from Cambridge, the 17-year-old Slater (pictured) can’t take the T to or from school because he’s wheelchair bound and the station on Thoreau Street is not handicapped accessible.

While his friends and classmates can hop on the train in the city and get to Concord in 25 minutes, Slater takes the RIDE, the T’s paratransit program, which calls to say when it will pick him up in the morning and often picks up others along the way.

“It works, but it’s very inflexible. It’s just not the same kind of freedom,” he said of the RIDE. “I have to wake up often between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and I could take the train, I’d be on the Red Line at 7:10 and get up at 6:45 a.m.”

Worse than the early wake-ups, his father Scott said, is that the RIDE could drop Gordie off an hour-and-a-half early for school and keep him waiting even longer to get home. On top of that, he’s often stopping along the way to pick up or drop off other riders between Concord and Cambridge. Sometimes he’s late for school, or sitting on Main Street waiting for the RIDE to arrive.

“Those are the things that upset us as parents,” Scott said. “They do the best they can, but the really bad days, he can have a total of a four-hour round trip commute from Cambridge to Concord while his classmates are taking a 25-minute train ride unaffected by traffic.”

While acknowledging the RIDE is better than nothing, Gordie’s friends characterize it as “separate but equal.” For many CA students, the T is their main lifeline in and out of the city.

“It’s not spontaneous, which does not fit in with most high-schoolers,” said Becca Imrich, a CA student and friend of Gordie’s. “It’s cramping his style.”

For the past year, Gordie’s friends, family and school have all been working to address this issue. They also got support from MassDOT officials, the town of Concord and city of Cambridge, where Gordie is on the Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

“I’m not a spokesperson for the disabled community, and I’m not going to pretend I’m something that I’m not,” Gordie said. “I think this started out a uniquely selfish idea that I wanted to take the T to school, not the RIDE. But, at this point, it is something slightly bigger than myself. It’s a gradual movement, and this is what will have to happen to make it accessible across the state.”

Gordie Slater is not alone. In Massachsuetts, 37 commuter rail stations are not handicapped accessible.

As the Slaters and their team worked together to launch letter-writing campaigns and reach out to lawmakers and officials seeking a mini-high platform at the Concord station, a parallel effort was going on in Winchester, where a family was lobbying for a mini-high platform at Wedgemere Station.

Just last week, they caught a break when Gary Talbot, the T’s assistant general manager for system-wide accessibility learned that, because of the Federal Transit Authority’s interpretation of a letter granting permission to construct a mini-high at Wedgemere, they could do the same in Concord because the same conditions apply.

“It was really outstanding news,” said Talbot, who learned of the interpretation while in Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the U.S. Access Board. “Because it wasn’t named a key station, the FTA was saying ‘Yes, you could do a mini-high platform.’ The other key thing was they couldn’t be doing other construction there, meaning they don’t want people spending a ton of money and not doing that. Again, Concord meets those requirements.”

Two weeks ago, there were two obstacles in the way of the Slaters’ goal of mini-highs at Concord Center. Today, the only one that remains is funding, according to Talbot, who said, “The T has no money. We’re looking under every rock to find whatever money we can.”

Talbot said it could cost $2 million to equip Wedgemere for a mini-high and about the same for Concord, “so long as there isn’t something in Concord that’s really unique.” Both stations are ranked high on his list for stimulus funds, but they’d need to be shovel-ready in order to be eligible.

A design for Concord would cost about $25,000 to $30,000, Talbot said, and the quickest way to get there would be the same kind of public-private partnership that got them to this point.

Scott Slater and CA Head of School Rick Hardy this week said they were pleased to hear one more obstacle has been removed, but Scott acknowledged coming up with the money could be the complicated part.

“We were pleased to learn that Concord’s train station has moved one step closer to accessibility,” Hardy said in a statement. “Concord Academy remains committed to this ongoing effort, for the benefit of Gordie Slater and of all wheelchair-users who would like to visit historic Concord. We’ll continue to support the town of Concord and the Slaters in any way we can.”

With just a few months remaining in his senior year of high school, Gordie Slater is “hesitantly optimistic” he’ll be able to take the train out to Concord on graduation day. But, after seeing a wheelchair bound student tour the school recently, he said he and his friends are looking to pass the torch down to a new class of CA students.

“These guys have been really great from day one,” Gordie said. “The wheelchair has never been an issue. I think when they first met me, they were wondering if do I push him or don’t I? So, I feel like these guys helping me with the train campaign has been more of an extension of us hanging out on a Friday night.”