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Transit hearing could be disabled

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Transit Administration held a public hearing Thursday night on its proposed Red Line - but not everybody could attend.

There, outside the rear door of the Lithuanian Hall in West Baltimore, sat Bob Reuter in his wheelchair. Ahead of him was a concrete lip of as much as 4 inches, with a rickety piece of plywood impersonating an actual accommodation for the disabled. Beyond lay a ramp so steep Reuter compared it to a ski slope - and not one at the beginner level.

"You would be taking your life into your hands," Reuter said.

Lovely as it is, the World War I-vintage Lithuanian Hall was about as accessible to Reuter as the summit of Mount Everest. Reuter, who had come to testify on behalf of Baltimoreans Against disAbility Discrimination, would not be heard in public that night.

Why should we care, those of us who stride the earth on two feet? Reuter, after all, could simply mail in his testimony.

Simple. According to Reuter, the MTA's decision to choose a venue for a public hearing that was not even remotely accessible to wheelchair users could invalidate not just Thursday's hearing but the entire round of hearings. For one thing, the MTA sent out a notice telling people all the hearing sites would comply with federal disability laws. Reuter went to the hearing counting on such access. How can the MTA now certify to the feds that it complied with the law?

According to Reuter, the Federal Transit Administration could order the MTA to stage a do-over of the entire hearing process. That do-over could push back the entire Red Line process by weeks or months. The second set of hearings would be conducted entirely at taxpayers' expense. The costs of the first round would be money down a rathole.

All because - 18 years after the adoption of the Americans With Disabilities Act - nobody at the MTA verified that the old community hall was wheelchair-accessible. According to MTA spokeswoman Jawauna Greene, the agency relied on a contractor.

Reuter, a 60-year-old rail transit advocate with a wispy white beard and a sharp sense of humor, left no doubt that he would take his case to the federal agency's Office of Civil Rights.

"I have no choice. I'm representing a disability-rights organization. They would kill me if I didn't file a complaint," he said.

Out on the sidewalk, Greene was valiantly trying to defend the indefensible as an "oversight."

Reuter, who knows the rules, was having none of it. "It's not an oversight. It is a violation of the law," he told Greene.

Greene insisted that the MTA made a "reasonable accommodation" of Reuter's needs by bringing a hearing examiner out to him to put his remarks on the record. She also said MTA officials offered to push him up the steep ramp or carry him into the hall.

How reasonable those efforts were seem different from the vantage point of a wheelchair. Reuter said he declined to give his statement in an alley, "segregated" from everyone else. He said the prospect of being carried in or rolled down a steep incline by MTA employees was unappealing both in terms of safety and dignity.

Ironically, Reuter is an enthusiastic supporter of the emerging consensus in favor of a light rail Red Line. But that won't stop him from contacting the feds.

"I don't want to gum it up, but there's a principle involved," he said.

Greene said she is confident the MTA complied with the law, and she questioned Reuter's conclusion that the location was exclusionary toward the disabled.

"If the FTA feels this is an egregious violation, we'll deal with that," she said.

I wasn't able to get a straight answer out of the FTA on Friday whether they would throw out the state's entire application for federal funds over a single violation of disability-rights laws. But they e-mailed some legal language that indicated the MTA would be on shaky legal ground in defending its actions and that the feds have almost unlimited power to craft a remedy.

So before Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and MTA Administrator Paul Wiedefeld sign off on any certification that they complied with all federal laws in preparing their application for funding of the Red Line, it would behoove them to visit the Lithuanian Hall - in wheelchairs - and see if they can make it up that ramp.

When they discover they can't, they might as well admit error, promise to stop outsourcing such decisions and begin the hearings over again.

An apology to Bob Reuter would also be in order.

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