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Read Larry Biondi on "The Re-Certification Game."



In the 1980s, wheelchair activists condemned "paratransit" as segregated. But people like a public taxi service that will pick them up at their homes and take them to where they want to go, and paratransit has mushroomed. In Louisville, as across the nation, though, the service is often horrid. Perhaps it's because the bus company doesn't want people to like it.

'As unpleasant as possible to ride'

By Mary Johnson

drawing of paratransit van
If a company set out to create a poorly run taxi service, one that had virtually no respect for its customers, arriving early or late by as much as an hour, taking riders miles out of their way before delivering them to their destinations, or failing to show up altogether, it could hardly do better than the reality that is Louisville's TARC3 paratransit service.

Evelyn Hudson has been keeping records.

On a sunny spring day, a ride from Louisville's Frankfort Avenue, on the east side of town, to Crums Lane, on the west side -- a half-hour's drive, at most -- takes nearly two hours.

A week later, a ride to St. Stephen's Baptist Church is nearly an hour late picking her up. And it never comes back at all: Hudson is apparently forgotten about altogether for her ride home. An hour after her scheduled pickup time, church members take her to her house.

A few weeks later, Hudson has scheduled a ride to church for 9:30. a.m. The van fails to appear. Nearly a half hour later, Hudson gets a call from the dispatcher: they won't be able to pick her up till 11 a.m. Does she still want the ride?

No. By that time, church will be over, she tells them.


ALMOST EVERYONE WHO RIDES TARC3 paratransit in Louisville has such stories. A few people keep records of them. Steve Snyder is one. Snyder works in the downtown area and rides TARC3 to his job and back.

People who work at the Kentucky School for the Blind, on Frankfort Avenue, are frequently passengers on the paratransit van with Snyder. "They live off Allson Ave. or Iowa Ave, over by Churchill Downs," he told us. "Sometimes the driver will pick up a lady who goes to Rockford Lane." In a way, these pickups make sense: he and his fellow passengers are all going to their homes in the southern and southwestern parts of the county. Snyder, living the farthest away, would normally be the last to get off the van on the way home.

Paratransit riders we talked to believe without question that Louisville's TARC bus service management wants to "get people off paratransit."

When we talked, though, a different trip was fresh in his mind. The previous day, the van had been 45 minutes late picking him up. Why? The driver told him that she had been on time; had just arived at the school, ready to pick up the group prior to picking up Snyder (which was her routine), when the dispatcher called her and told her to leave the school, leaving her regular passengers, and "go out to Old Shepherdsville Road and Breckenridge Lane right away, that a lady was waiting there."

The driver left the Frankfort Ave. location, said Snyder, drove the 11 or so miles to the location she'd been sent to, in the southeastern quadrant of the county, to pick up the woman rider. From there, he continued, the driver came back into town, picked him up, then took the woman she'd picked up on Old Shepherdsville Rd. to New Albany, Indiana -- at least 20 miles away -- with Snyder on board.

That day it took Snyder nearly two hours to get home -- a trip that, had he had his own vehicle, would have taken no more than 30 minutes, even in rush-hour traffic. "Not only was my ride 45 minutes late, but I had to ride around the community for two hours."

Later, he heard from the women at the School that they'd waited for a ride that day for well over an hour.

Instead of making one woman late the last-minute routing change had made three sets of people late.

"And it wasn't illegal," said Snyder. "It was irrational routing, but it wasn't illegal."

Until the 1980s, no public bus service had wheelchair lifts on route buses. At the time, "paratransit" was the only option available to people who couldn't climb onto the regular buses. It was a separate van service, a kind of taxi service. It was not really public; transit companies could -- and did -- say who could ride it, and for what reasons. Some bus companies would only provide rides to and from work. Others would only provide rides to doctors' offices. Or to church.

Wheelchair activists in Denver condemned paratransit as a segregated -- and unequal -- system. In 1983, calling themselves American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, or ADAPT, they spearheaded a nationwide protest effort pressing the nation's public transit systems to become accessible to wheelchair users by means of lifts on their route buses.

Bus companies fought against equipping their buses with lifts. They said it was too expensive. ADAPT countered that equipping a community's public bus fleet was actually cheaper than a separate taxi service. The only reason paratransit was cheaper, they said, was because bus companies kept ridership low by restricting who could use it, and for what purposes.

The nation's bus companies didn't deny this, but they insisted that most disabled people liked paratransit. What they didn't say was that not very many people got to use it.

It took protests in the streets, bus blockings, and mass arrests to get change to occur. When the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, ADAPT's call for lifts on city buses was put into law.

But, because many disabled people did still want paratransit, insisting they could not ride the public buses, lift or no lift, the law also required that bus companies offer paratransit. It would serve people who couldn't get to the bus stops, because there were no curb cuts, for example. People whose disabilities meant they couldn't wait out in the heat or cold. People who did not have the cognitive ability to find their way to and from a regular bus route.

Anyone who met these criteria had to be allowed to ride paratransit, the law said. Paratransit now had to meet federal criteria as well, so bus companies could no longer legally restrict ridership as they had in decades past.

And ridership mushroomed.

Suddenly, what ADAPT had been saying during the 1980s began to sink in, as managers of the nation's bus services began to realize that it was far more costly to provide paratransit, which was essentially a taxi service, than to run a lift-outfitted bus along a fixed route, with people getting on and off as they chose. A wheelchair lift was a onetime capital cost. Paratransit costs were ongoing, and rose whenever a new rider entered the system.

And so, in the 14 years since federal law required that disabled people be allowed paratransit, bus companies have worked to do all they can within the law -- and quite often, outside the law -- to "make it as unpleasant as possible to ride it, so you will crawl to the regular bus service."

That's how Marcellus Mayes puts it. Mayes, who is blind and a TARC3 user, chairs Louisville's Metro Disability Coalition's Transportation Committee. His sentiment is widely shared. Paratransit riders we talked to believe without question that Louisville's TARC bus service management wants to "get people off paratransit."

In this regard, TARC is no different than bus systems across the nation. Paratransit is rife with problems everywhere.

The brief history above is important. It helps us understand that the problems with TARC3, as Louisville's paratransit service is called, stem from a management uninterested in making the service better. The problems seem intractable, and echo problems found with virtually every paratransit service throughout the nation. It could be argued that companies like TARC do not want paratransit to run smoothly. If it did, they reason, even more people would clamor to use it.

If a company set out to create a poorly run taxi service, one that had virtually no respect for its customers, arriving early or late by as much as an hour, taking riders miles out of their way before delivering them to their destinations, or failing to show up altogether, it could hardly do better than the reality that is TARC3.

A man attending an MDC meeting is interrupted by a TARC3 driver who has arrived 45 minutes before the pick-up time. Rather than protesting, the man quickly hustles out of the meeting and onto the van, explaining to the others at the meeting that he'd "better leave since my ride is here." The scene is repeated weekly, at disability meetings all over Louisville. Drivers come early or late. They rarely come on time.

"On July 12 they were an hour late picking me up," Snyder said. "On July 14 they were 35 minutes late." He recorded both infractions in a record system he was keeping at the time.

TARC is clearly breaking the law at such times.

When one schedules a ride on TARC3, says Snyder, the dispatcher must give them a pickup time within one hour either side of their requested pickup time. In other words, if a rider requests a pickup at 2 p.m., the dispatcher must, by law, give them a scheduled pickup between 1 and 3 p.m. And they must tell the rider the time they're scheduled for pickup.

No real taxi service would get away with such wide latitude. But the federal regulations allow this much leeway.

Once your ride is scheduled, Snyder continues, drivers have a 30-minute window -- 15 minutes before until 15 minutes after your scheduled pickup time -- in which the van can show up and be considered "on time."

The people we talked to told of pickup times wildly out of sync with this regulation. People complain -- sometimes -- but the consensus of everyone we talked to is that the complaints go nowhere. And few of the people we talked to were willing to have us use their names in this story. They were afraid they'd get "thrown off" the service, they said.

A woman arrives at a meeting an hour late. She tells the group she has been riding in the TARC3 van for two hours, while the driver picked up and dropped off other passengers.

Another woman tells of a ride from hell with driver who, apparently on drugs, races across the beltway around the city weaving in and out of lanes, refusing to slow down. The woman became nauseated and vomited on the bus. Finally, fearing for her life, she said, she was able to use her cell phone to call the police, who evidently called the dispatcher, who got the driver to calm down.

As there was no one else on the bus at the time, there is no way to corroborate the woman's story.

Although they complain freely enough when asked for particulars, they don't want their names used. There are too many stories, and they are too consistent, to be invented. But far too many people refused to allow their names to be used in this story, for fear of being "kicked off paratransit." That was why they did not file complaints either.

The stories fell into patterns: People picked up late or not at all, drivers getting lost; riders carted across the county while drivers ran hither and yon picking up other riders whose regular buses had failed to show, everyone delivered to their destinations hours late. People forgotten about altogether, like the woman left overnight outside a doctor's office when TARC3 failed to show, who is is reportedly planning to file suit.

"I know that complaints come in -- who knows how many? A lot of riders don't call in to complain when their ride is a half-hour late. They don't call because they're afraid they will be kicked off the service," said Snyder, who's also on MDC's Transportation Committee.

"They want you to call in your complaint; they don't want you to write to them, but just call it in. That way there's no record," he continued.

"I don't know what happens to them. You're told to call the scheduler and complain, but I don't know how many actually call, or what TARC does with them."

Hudson said that she tried for awhile to call the City Call complaint line every time her ride was later than the allowable "window" -- but it did no good. Plus, she said, she was "bawled out" by a TARC official for complaining so frequently.

The reason people are picked up late -- or early -- and the reason they are forced to ride all over the county, it seems, has to do with the way the rides are dispatched. And that, says Snyder, has to do with the scheduling, which is allegedly computerized -- although it is hard to believe a computer program can manage to make such a botch of things so much of the time.

"They bought a new computer system a few years ago," said Snyder. "When they started, they had lots of glitches." It was his belief that the system wasn't "properly programmed for our community -- there were a lot of strange and irrational routings." It seemed to Snyder, he said, that the only time a problem was brought to the attention of TARC was when a rider brought it up. It seemed that the drivers never notified the dispatcher of the problems.

"This has been going on for two years now," he said.

Paratransit problems plague crips nationwide
Almost every major city in the U.S. has problems with its paratransit service. Many of the problems have been chronicled in newspapers, but since most newspapers' websites now require registration and a fee to view archives, it's hard to provide links to those stories. Go to any major media outlet -- Newsday, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle -- and type in the words "disabled" and "transit" (or "paratransit") to get the stories.

Here are a few links to stories on the internet that don't require registration:

Here are a few we've reported on Ragged Edge Online:

"I think that what happens is when a customer calls the scheduler for a ride, the scheduler goes to the computer and sees where they can put it -- where there's a slot. The latest you can call to schedule a ride for the next day is 4:30. Laidlaw [one of the van services under contract to TARC] is supposed to get the schedules by 6 p.m. so their drivers can go home with their schedules for the next day. So they have about one and a half hours to sort out about a thousand runs" (if the figure that he's heard from TARC's Karen Dennison is correct, he adds) -- "they have just a little more than an hour to schedule all the runs, and what that tells me is that nobody is looking at these irrational routes and correcting them -- it's all done by computer, and nobody ever fixes it."

Once the schedule "gets into the hands of" the subcontractors -- WHEELS and Laidlaw Transportation Service -- who actually do the runs -- "nobody goes over them because immediately they're given to the drivers, who go home with their schedules for the next day," Snyder continues.

"The next morning is the first time anyone really looks at the route -- the driver looks at it then," Snyder speculates "and I'm sure that on more than one occasion a driver calls in and says, 'this won't work' and the dispatcher says 'I'll see what I can do' -- but then the dispatcher is fixing the problem on the fly and it never gets corrected in the system.

"So it's screwed up from the get-go."

Which is more than likely what happened on the day Snyder rode to New Albany on his way home.

"One day we were going down Preston [Highway]," Snyder recalled, "and the dispatcher called the driver: 'you have an 'add-on' on Mount Holly.'" Mount Holly Ave. is across town from where the driver was at the time. In the far northern end of the city, it's in the opposite direction the driver was now heading with Snyder.

On the van's radio, Snyder could hear the same dispatcher calling to another driver -- one in New Albany -- sending that driver to an "add -on" out Dixie Hwy., in the same end of the county where Snyder's driver was now heading. It seemed the dispatcher hadn't figured this out, however.

Sure enough, says Snyder, the dispatcher sent the driver from New Albany out to Dixie Hwy., while Snyder's driver is sent across town to Mt. Holly.

Such "irrational routings" seem more the norm than the exception, from those we talked to.

"You are supposed to be able to ask for a ride the day before, and they have to supply it." Snyder knows that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, transit systems must offer next-day paratansit service. "It's not supposed to be a two-week in advance service. And it's supposed to be 'zero percent deniability' -- which means they cannot deny you a ride at all.

"The court ruling said that it is to be a 'next-day service,'" Snyder explained. "As long as a person calls by at least one day prior to their ride, then TARC must give them a ride within the one-hour parameter either side of the time requested."

Other riders we talked to told us that a person had to call 14 days in advance to be assured a ride -- the 2 week period was etched in peoples' minds from earlier policies, now illegal. Some said they requested several rides just to be sure they'd get one they needed. The result of this is that often the TARC3 service has filled all its "slots" far in advance. People will call six days in advance and be told "we don't have a slot open for you."

TARC didn't inform people of the court ruling, said Snyder, "and many people still think they have to call days in advance." The problem, he explains, is that "someone could call on a Tuesday for a ride on Thursday, and a TARC3 scheduler might inform them that there were no rides available at the time requested. What the rider may not know is that they can ask for a ride" -- "make a trip request" as it's legally called -- "and TARC must provide one for them. "

But people don't know about this, and so they don't ask for it that way, and they'll be told "we don't have anything for you now."

"TARC should notify its riders. When you call to schedule a ride, they have a voicemail -- a prompter -- " but you have to select one of the options on the voicemail before you ever get to the place where you get information, he says, and most people when they get the voicemail just hang up. He thinks TARC knows this, too, but doesn't care -- or that the agency craftily uses this tendency of people to avoid providing information.

"TARC needs to tell people the rules. They need to put it in their periodical newsletter that everyone gets. But they've never put it in there."

"They need to send out the DOT [Dept. of Transportation] rules and regulations to everyone."

"They're not getting information to the ridership, they don't give them information when the information pertains to them getting better service."

What was perhaps most irritating, Mayes said, was the "omniscient attitude" taken by TARC. "They act all-knowing. When you come in and make a complaint, they treat you like a little kid -- as though your complaint isn't legitimate," he said. Their demand that riders know 'the exact date, time and place' of any problem service intimidated riders, he said. People got frustrated; over time, they simply quit complaining. They were supposed to call the City Call line and complain, he said; that way, there'd be a record. But few paratransit users, he added, were doing this.

The "management style" of TARC3 was that your calls were never returned, he said.

Mayes said that TARC did "not want to do paratransit, so they make it as uncomfortable for you as they can, so you will crawl to a fixed-route service." That would be fine, he said -- "but you have to have an architecturally friendly environment in order for fixed-route to work." Most people with disabilities, he argued, should be "automatically eligible" for paratransit, simply because it was so difficult to get to bus stops. Blind people, he added, didn't have audible signals at crosswalks. For disabled people, there were broken sidewalks to contend with, sidewalks with no curb ramps or broken curb ramps. In many neighborhoods, sidewalks were nonexistent.

Last year, Snyder said, he was having so many problems with TARC3 "that I started keeping a diary. I then sent a letter once a month to [TARC Director] Barry Barker listing all my complaints."

After six months he went back over his list. About one of every six rides he had were "outside their regulations" -- the driver was not picking him up within the window allowed by federal regulations.

"They don't do that to me anymore," Snyder went on. It seemed that as soon as he began informing the transit system's director of his problems, in a documented fashion, his service improved. To Snyder there's no doubt about the cause and effect. But he says he cannot get other riders to document their problems with a diary, and certainly has not been able to convince them to send them to the director.

A ride on a Saturday from her home to the Newburg Rd. Church of Christ would have never gotten Evelyn Hudson to her destination had the driver not accidentally passed the church. "Here it is!" she called to the driver. By then she'd been riding on the van for nearly two hours while the driver wandered about trying to find the address.

That same day, her return ride was over 40 minutes late.

But that seems to be par for the course on weekends, she said. "They're always worse on Saturdays and Sundays."

If a private, for-profit taxi or limousine firm ran such a pitiful service, nobody would pay for it, and it would soon be out of business. TARC3, though, is, for most of the hundreds who ride it, the only option they have for getting from one place to another. And so, much as disabled people did two decades ago, before the nationwide protests, before the law, before the regulations, they endure it.

"If you take my experience" -- the one in which one of every 6 rides failed to meet regulatory standards -- "and you multiply it by 950 rides a day" -- the figure a TARC paratransit official has given him, you come up with nearly 50,000 problems a year.

Still, Snyder thinks, the problems might be decreasing. He thinks the TARC3 ridership might be decreasing -- though he doesn't have any figures -- mainly because "they are pushing everyone to buses."

William Holbrook, who teaches part-time at Jefferson Community College and says he uses TARC3 because with a visual impairment it's nearly impossible for him to navigate all the transfers from the Breckenridge Lane area to the downtown campus, found himself barred from the service for six months after he turned in his tattered and worn TARC3 ID card, hoping to get a clean one. "I was told, 'this is no good anymore,' and they revoked it."

Holbrook was one of the many riders who TARC3 insisted on "re-certifying" before allowing them more rides. He had had "unconditional eligibility" but TARC now wanted to re-evaluate him. "I waited six months."

During that time he tried to pressure TARC. Mayes helped him, introducing him to TARC board members to try to help him.

A woman was sent out "to evaluate my handicap," he said. "She's a nice social worker, but not very well versed in how visually impaired people function."

Everybody complained about TARC's current undertaking of "re-certification."

"The people who do it aren't licensed," Snyder said.

Others echoed his sentiments:

"They don't have the skill do to this work."

"They don't have the knowledge to determine if someone needs the service or not."

"They will let someone be certified if they appeal, but most people who are turned down just give up."

"That's what they want you to do," Snyder said. "They know most people who are denied service won't appeal. They'll just give up. They'll sit home."

Eventually, Holbook had his TARC3 eligibility restored. "If I hadn't had Marcellus helping me I'd've never gotten it back," he said. But now there's a new wrinkle: "I can only go certain places, and only on certain days of the week now," he said. His new card gives him only "conditional eligibility." It doesn't allow him to use TARC3 to go shopping, or to the doctor's office, "or to conduct my ordinary business," he said. He can only go to work and back.

Holbrook applied for full TARC3 privileges, but still hadn't gotten them when we talked to him. In order to get "unconditional eligibility," he will have to go through yet another assessment.

Taking away his TARC3 card had left him unprepared, he said. He'd never considered that his asking for a new card would give them the opportunity to take away his riding privileges altogether while he was "re-evaluated." He was given no warning, no explanation -- his eligibility was simply revoked.

Now he finds that his work options are increasingly limited. "I teach English As A Second Language and also regular English," he said. "I was going to apply for a job with the Jefferson County Public Schools, but I can't take a job like that without full access -- because I'd have to go from school to school," something he can no longer do with the limited bus service he's now allowed.

"The lady who did my evaluation" told him he could ride the regular route bus. "She gave me pickup and drop-off points that weren't even in my neighborhood, though," he went on. "I can get to and from a bus stop if it's on a route I know, but I can't catch a bus to a new place I don't know in advance." And as for catching a bus, how would he do that, he asked. "I can't tell a bus from a delivery truck."

"I know TARC needs to do re-certification," Snyder admitted. "There are folks still using paratransit because of some ailment they had five years ago. But what I am hearing is that they're not only denying service but they're doing 'limited access.'" He's seen something about this in the DOT regs but admit he doesn't know much about it.

"A driver told me the other day about a lady who used to go visit her father at a nursing home" but now she's been re-certified for "limited access," he said, and "they refuse to take her there. They will take her to church," he added.

"In a country where people are aging, a decreasing paratransit ridership is a red flag," says Snyder. "I think what's happening is that people are just staying home."

Posted November 30, 2004.

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge.

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