Disabled find special buses also can have handicaps


With regrets to New Flyer Industries, Elizabeth Crawford gives a thumbs down to the Low Floor Bus.

She didn't mind when the rear doors flapped wildly at her stop for no apparent reason. Or even that the bus broke down Tuesday on its second day of service and a spare part had to be shipped from Canada.

What bothered Ms. Crawford was that sitting in her wheelchair, she couldn't reach the pull cord to signal her stop. Not a good sign in a curb-level vehicle built to make life easier for the disabled.

"They ought to have a cord where people can reach it," said Ms. Crawford, a Social Security Administration employee with muscular dystrophy. "I'll have to think about it, but I'm not really impressed."

At the Mass Transit Administration, the jury is still out on the Low Floor, an import from Winnipeg, Manitoba, that promises to handle wheelchairs without expensive hydraulic lifts.

But one thing is certain: Baltimore's bus system must fundamentally change the way it serves people with disabilities. And not everyone is happy with it.

Until last year, MTA buses averaged fewer than 10 disabled passengers a day, a tiny fraction of the system's 300,000 daily riders. Until 1983, the MTA didn't have a single wheelchair lift in its 900-bus fleet, and the early ones frequently broke down.

Instead, the state agency invested in a "Mobility" fleet of smaller coaches and vans that serve disabled riders exclusively, taking them from their doors directly to their destinations.

Since 1978, the MTA has operated what amounts to a heavily subsidized taxi system for an average of 3,644 handicapped riders each week.

Beginning early next year, that will change, courtesy of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The landmark civil rights law passed by Congress two years ago will force the MTA to make a greater effort to integrate the disabled into the mainstream.

But that effort will cost a river of money -- as much as $1.4 billion a year nationwide. And it will actually force cutbacks in service to some disabled riders, a significant number of whom have no desire to be mainstreamed.

"There are people who are very fearful of this and with good reason," said Dennis J. Fisher, chairman of a panel that advises the MTA on disability issues.

"I hear those people," Mr. Fisher said. "We have to find a way to address their concerns."

Take those with bad eyesight. About one-third of the 6,400 people registered for the MTA's Mobility service are blind.

But federal regulations say that blindness alone no longer will qualify them.

That leaves Mark LoRusso out in the cold.

A New Community College of Baltimore music instructor, the 38-year-old Baltimore resident teaches senior citizens' groups all over the city and he regards navigating the bus system a sizable inconvenience.

The MTA doesn't print bus schedules in Braille. Telephone information isn't available weekends or in the evening.

When Mr. LoRusso does take the bus, drivers occasionally leave him at the wrong stop -- or in unfamiliar neighborhoods where street crime is a problem or his seeing eye dog is harassed.

"Some of the neighborhoods are unsafe to get around, especially when it's sleeting and snowing," said Mr. LoRusso.

"If I could drive a car, I would. But I can't. I don't think a service like Mobility is so much to ask."

Not all blind people agree. James Gashel, a lobbyist with the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, rides the system frequently and has no patience for government "custodializing."

"Some people won't have the type of transit service they had in the past but that was one of the trade-offs," Mr. Gashel said.

"There is a question whether people who are blind should be taking up space on para-transit. It probably never should have been allowed."

Even if the MTA tightens eligibility standards, there will be no cost savings for the $2.1 million Mobility program.

Instead, the MTA will add some severely disabled customers, expanding service from inside the Baltimore beltway into Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.

No one at MTA knows how much that will cost, and it could be expensive.

While the disabled customer plunks down $1.10 for a ride on the Mobility minibus or in one of the MTA's contracted vans, the government hands over far more: $8 to $27 per person for each trip.

Wheelchair lifts have added $12,000 to the $200,000 cost of MTA's standard buses.

So far, about one-third of the fleet has been equipped with lifts and disabled riders pay only 40 cents per trip -- the same rate that senior citizens pay.

The agency can expect little financial help from the same federal government that is imposing the new standards.

The disabilities law authorized no new spending, and the budget submitted last week by President Bush would slash mass transit funding by more than 20 percent, to $3 billion next year.

.5l Still, Maryland transit authorities will have to spend far less to comply with the Disabilities Act than many jurisdictions with older mass transit systems.

Baltimore's Metro stations are considered fully accessible now and the new Central Light Rail Line from Timonium to Glen Burnie will be.

MTA has made significant progress in attracting disabled riders.

In 1991, the daily average shot up to 60 a day, compared with fewer than 10 in previous years -- a result of MTA's community outreach efforts.

"We've made progress," said Rosalyn Simon, director of an MTA project to improve accessibility. "We just have a way to go."

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