Transit agency to update bus fleet

With new vehicles, 85% will be accessible to disabled riders

MTA lags behind peers

MTA to add buses for disabled riders

April 03, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A decade after federal law required equal treatment of the disabled, the Maryland Transit Administration lags far behind other cities and states in making its buses accessible to people in wheelchairs.

More than a quarter of MTA buses are off-limits for wheelchair users because they do not have ramps or lifts. Riders of the Baltimore-based transit service tell stories of missed meetings, canceled doctor's appointments and hours lost standing on street corners waiting for a bus to arrive.

Of transit agencies serving the nation's 21 most-populous cities, only three have a lower percentage of wheelchair-accessible buses than the MTA. In Washington, 92 percent of buses are accessible. In New York, it's 100 percent. Same goes for Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Detroit, among others.

At a hastily called news conference yesterday, MTA officials said they would replace 100 buses over the next few months to bring their fleet from 73 percent accessibility to 85 percent. Even with the new buses, the MTA falls behind other major transit agencies.

"One morning, five No. 15 buses came, and I couldn't get on one of them," said Harold Harris, 51, who lives in West Baltimore and has used a wheelchair for a year. "I was disgusted. I was going to a meeting and I was late. It's just ridiculous."

One problem is the age of the MTA's 800-bus fleet. Until 1990, buses were not required to have wheelchair lifts - and the MTA has more than 200 buses that were purchased before then.

Wheelchair users say the new buses will help, but that the MTA must do more. They want a better maintenance program for the lifts and better training for drivers, who sometimes claim lifts aren't working - apparently, riders said, because they don't want to take the time to get a wheelchair user on board.

"Sometimes drivers don't know if the lift's working or not," said Jane Levine, 44, a wheelchair user who rides buses daily. "A lot of times, they don't want to find out. I don't like it because I have to go where I need to go."

Levine quit a job in Glen Burnie last fall because she found it impossible to get there on time using public transportation. She would leave her East Baltimore home at 6 a.m. to be at work by 8. Some days, she didn't get in until 9:45.

"I only worked there a month. I quit because I didn't like being late," she said.

Top MTA officials - who are new to their jobs - had trouble explaining the agency's low showing for wheelchair accessibility. The top two started within the past year and were reluctant to criticize previous administrations.

"I'm not sure why the numbers are the way they are. It's not acceptable," said Daryl Lampkins, deputy administrator for operations. "In moving forward, the administrator and myself have every intent of reaching a 100 percent accessibility rate for the riding public."

The MTA reports that about 1,000 times a month people who use wheelchairs ride buses - though the actual number is almost certainly higher than that because drivers often do not radio in the pickup of a wheelchair passenger.

In a report to the MTA last year, the Federal Transit Administration made eight recommendations for improving service to wheelchair users, including more frequent inspections of lifts and faster repairs.

The FTA found that broken lifts were not being repaired within the five days required by federal law, and the buses were being sent into service with broken lifts. One cause, the report said, may be the state hiring freeze that has reduced the MTA maintenance staff.

`I feel the cold'

The FTA observed 20 times when wheelchair users or people with crutches who could not climb stairs attempted to board buses. Passengers boarded successfully in 11 of the 20 cases. On five occasions, the bus did not have a lift even though the route was marked as lift-equipped. Once, the bus driver drove past a waiting wheelchair user without stopping, and twice the driver said the lift was broken.

Wheelchairs users say they hear that too often.

"When they say the lift's not working, I say, `Let me see. Try it,'" said Pamela Sylvia, 41, of Essex. "Some will, but the majority of them won't. They'll just close the door in my face."

Twice last week, Sylvia said, she could not board a bus because it didn't have a lift, although the schedule said it would. At least it's getting warmer, she said.

"I'm not like other people who can move around to generate some heat. I can't," said Sylvia, who lost her ability to walk seven years ago because of a spinal infection. "I'm sitting in this chair 24/7. I feel the cold."

She tried to travel less during the winter, fearing a repeat of a five-hour trip last summer. She and her husband had attended a concert at Druid Hill Park. They left at 7 p.m. to return to Walbrook Junction, where they lived at the time.

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