Two public meetings are set this week to get comments on how the new city bus service should serve the disabled community.
It could get a lot more difficult for elderly, disabled and low-income people to catch the bus as Lawrence starts rolling on a new fixed-route transit system.
While city officials stress that no one will be left without transportation, nearly half the people who now qualify for discount service in Douglas County may have to make other connections to get around on the proposed new bus system.
That worries advocates for the disabled.
"We want to make sure as many people as need the service are able to ride," said Barb Bishop, executive director of The Arc of Douglas County, an education and advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities.
At issue is how people who ride "paratransit" buses provided by Kaw Regional Transit (KRT) or any of its member agencies will qualify for special services under the new system.
KRT coordinates transportation services offered by a number of agencies that mainly serve the elderly, disabled and people on low incomes.
Also at issue is whether the city will provide the same level of door-to-door service now provided by KRT, or whether it will cut back to what is called "curb-to-curb" service.
Who will be affected
Those issues ultimately will be decided by Lawrence city commissioners, but comments received Monday and Tuesday at public meetings could have a big influence on the recommendations that will be made by the Public Transit Advisory Committee.
City officials stress that no one will be left without transportation service under the new system. In fact, they say, the point of a fixed-route bus system is to expand service to a broader segment of the community.
But when it comes to door-to-door paratransit service, they say, many people now receiving that service will have to adjust to riding the fixed-route system.
One question is how the system will accommodate people covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The ADA puts the transit system in a situation for providing service to people who can't get to a fixed-route system," said Hugh Kierig of K.A. Associates, a consultant helping the city design its fixed-route system. "An individual who does not have a mobility impairment will have to shift to the fixed route system."
Kierig estimated about 45 percent of the people who now qualify for discount service with KRT or any of its members will not qualify for ADA service under the new system.
That adds up to a major impact on KRT and its riders, according to KRT executive director Paul Weimer. Last year, KRT provided about 71,000 rides.
One reason, he said, is that the city provides about $458,000 a year to KRT through the city-funded Douglas County Area Transit program, or DCAT. That money comes from the 1 mill of property tax the city has been levying for the transportation program.
Starting Jan. 1, however, the city will start putting that money into its own transportation fund to pay for the new citywide bus system.
But Lawrence also will receive federal money for its system, Kierig said. And that means federal law will require the city to provide transportation to people with mobility impairments who cannot access the new system.
But within that general requirement, Kierig and advocates for the disabled said, are a multitude of requirements the city must meet and choices it must make.
"Our concern is: What are they going to use as their ADA definition?" asked Bishop, the advocacy group director. "Although it is defined legally, how it is interpreted can reflect the local concerns."
What ADA requires
The ADA defines a "disability" as any "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities."
Major life activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working, the act states.
Generally speaking, Kierig said, the ADA requires the city to provide service to people who qualify on a "demand-response" basis, meaning those people can call in advance and schedule a vehicle to pick them up and take them where they are going.
That's essentially the service now being provided by KRT and its members, but the ADA allows some flexibility in how that service is provided.
Kierig said there are three levels of demand-response service:
- Curb-to-curb service, where the rider must meet the bus or van at the curb.
- Door-to-door service, where the driver picks up riders at their door and helps them into the vehicle, if necessary.
- And door-through-door service, where the driver actually may go into a person's home, help with their coat or packages, and even help put away their groceries if they are returning from the market.
The ADA also lays out a number of other requirements, Kierig said.
He said the city must maintain the same performance standards for on-time pickups with the paratransit service that it maintains with the fixed-route system.
Also, it must respond to every request for paratransit service from a qualifying rider, and it cannot deny trips based on capacity.
Fares for the paratransit service cannot be more than double the fare charged for the fixed-route system, he said.
And finally, the paratransit system can't prioritize rides. It cannot, for instance, determine that one person's ride to a doctor's appointment is a higher priority than another's ride to the hairdresser.
How the city will respond
The city recently sent out requests for proposals (RFPs) for private contractors who would operate the new bus system.
Under the paratransit portion of the request, Kierig said, the city specified door-to-door service, but the consultants and the city's own transportation planning staff say they will recommend the city finance only the lesser curb-to-curb service.
Aaron Bartlett, the city's transportation planner, said it was a matter of both time and money.
"The less rides you provide per hour, the more expensive each ride becomes," Bartlett said.
Kierig said cost was important because other ADA requirements prohibit the city from denying service to the disabled, even on the basis of cost or capacity.
"We must pick up every requested trip brought to us," Kierig said. "We're not going to put ourselves in jeopardy of violating someone's civil rights, but we have to recognize there is only a limited pot of money."
Bishop said officials at The Arc of Douglas County understand that limited funds mean some people will have to make adjustments for a lower level of service.
"We're not suggesting that everyone riding paratransit now will continue to do so," Bishop said. "Some want, and should be, on a fixed route. It's a matter of helping the city understand our concerns and letting them know."'
-- Peter Hancock's phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public comment on a new city bus system will be taken during two meetings this week.
The first is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday in the main conference room at Independence Inc., 2001 Haskell.
The second will be from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Lawrence Public Library auditorium, 707 Vt.