Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pennsylvania Port Authority cuts threaten independence of people with disabilities

From the Pittsbugh Post-Gazette:

Allegheny County is reeling from the Port Authority's proposal to increase fares, reduce operating hours and eliminate bus routes as a means to address a projected $64 million deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. Part of that proposal is a 35 percent reduction to ACCESS, the paratransit program for people under 65 with disabilities.

If approved, service cuts scheduled to begin Sept. 2 threaten to squelch the independence that many people with disabilities have worked hard to attain and that the community champions. Further, the cuts would dismantle a 32-year-old system of accessible transportation that is lauded as one of the most efficient and effective in the nation.

Under the proposal, service for the county's 4,500 ACCESS users under age 65 would be limited to the minimum requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act -- that is, all rides would start and end within three-quarters of a mile of an operating bus line. With 46 bus routes out of 102 on the chopping block this year, the proposed ACCESS service map omits a substantial portion of Allegheny County. Currently, ACCESS picks up and takes riders anywhere within the county.

Nearly 1,300 ACCESS riders would lose transportation service because they live outside the service area. The remaining riders who live within the service area would lose some transportation because hundreds of destinations -- workplaces, medical facilities, shopping areas, community colleges and more -- are not on the map.

Karin Thum, 34, (pictured) would lose service completely. She moved from eastern Pennsylvania in 2009 to live at The Gatehouse, a residential program in Marshall operated by the Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania to help young adults transition to living on their own. Ms. Thum uses ACCESS for a wide range of activities, including transportation to her volunteer job at a hospice center.

Ms. Thum and her fiance, John Fitzgerald, 24, also a Gatehouse resident, plan to move to their own apartment in May and would like to remain in the Wexford area where their jobs are but which is not included on the new service map. "We rely on ACCESS," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We wouldn't be able to go anywhere without it."

While fare increases and reduced hours concern ACCESS users, the drastic change in the service area has people most alarmed. People like Jeff Hladio, 30, who would not be able to ride from Bridgeville to his job at the Pennsylvania National Guard facility in Coraopolis.

Or Matthew Novosedliak, 44, who would lose his transportation from Ross to his job at the VA Medical Center in Aspinwall.

Or Ellen Goldfon, 56, whose ride from Munhall to her job in Oakland would be canceled.

Or the 25 residents of Allegheny Independence House in Wilmerding who say they would be cut off from jobs, doctors, therapies, shopping, Pirates games and family.

"They're taking our freedom away. It's as simple as that," said resident Jill Timmerman, 52.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst and transportation specialist at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif., said Allegheny County's ACCESS system "stands out as a leader" among paratransit systems across the nation and is widely emulated. In 2005, ACCESS won the U.S. Department of Transportation's "United We Ride" award.

About 40 percent of ACCESS patrons are wheelchair users. Visual impairment, deaf-blindness and other conditions are also represented among riders. Nonpublic transportation options are few and vastly more costly than ACCESS, whose one-way fares will range from $3.45 to $5.25 if proposed increases take effect in June.

Agencies that assist people with disabilities say they can't fill the void. Sharon Wolf, director of development for the Spina Bifida Association of Western Pennsylvania, said the agency does not have the means to transport the 14 adults who live at The Gatehouse or the 30 other clients who receive housing services. "We can't replace ACCESS. Without it, we can't do what we do, which is to help people live and work in the community."

Jeff Parker, 58, chief operating officer for UCP/CLASS, was one of the first people to sign up for ACCESS in 1979. Mr. Parker, a wheelchair user, takes ACCESS to commute from Brighton Heights to UCP/CLASS's Swissvale center. He said his long experience with ACCESS illustrates the importance of preserving it.

"When I came to Pittsburgh in 1971 to go to Pitt, I could do everything in Oakland and that was fine. But when I graduated, I could not leave Oakland because there was no accessible public transportation. It was like living in a terrarium."

"Then ACCESS began and I could go anywhere I wanted. I got a job Downtown and a condo there. I met my future wife, who lived in Highland Park, and I could visit her."

"I see what ACCESS has done for me for over 30 years and I think it's very sad that other people might not have this opportunity in the future."

Paul O'Hanlon, 58, an attorney with the Pittsburgh office of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and a public transit user, said it's important that advocates do not split up into camps and work against each other. "Then we're less powerful as a force," he said.

"It's also important to clarify that the Port Authority is not the target," he added. "The state has not come up with the funding mechanism it has promised for years. What's lacking is the political will."