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When I was 16 years old and all my friends were learning how to drive, I learned that driving was not an option for me due to a visual impairment.  I lived in a small town with no public transportation.  So, as my friends got their keys and gained their freedom, I watched my small world get smaller.

Sure, friends and family members drove me around.  But I couldn’t get farther than a couple miles from my home on my own. 

I was a straight A high school student with hopes of going to college, but also harbored significant doubts about my future.  Without being able to drive, how would I ever be able to get a job, rent my own apartment, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

The answer: Public transportation.  Since attending college, I have chosen to live in communities with good, reliable transit service.  Thanks to the availability of transit, I’ve been able to pursue graduate degrees, work, live independently, own a home, volunteer in my community, shop, meet up with friends, you name it. 

I can do anything — except drive, of course.  And buses and trains connect me to almost every person, place, and activity in my life in the DC Metro region.  It’s pretty amazing when you stop to think about it.

There are many people in our region living with disabilities who cannot drive and who also share my experience.  In fact, there are many people with more significant disabilities than I have. Some of them cannot access the fixed-route bus and rail system.  They qualify for ADA complementary paratransit: MetroAccess. 

Some people who qualify for MetroAccess need to use the service for every trip, whereas other people who qualify can use the fixed-route service some of the time and under certain conditions.  This varies based on the individual’s abilities and the conditions around the stops and stations and in the path of travel to the stops and stations.

There has been a great deal of discussion on how to address escalating paratransit costs in our region.  Should the MetroAccess fare structure change?  Should Metro cut back the ADA complementary paratransit service area to more closely reflect the ADA minimum requirements? 

For most people who do not have disabilities and who do not rely on ADA complementary paratransit service to get where they need to go, the answers are an immediate and resounding “Yes” and “Yes.”  But from my perspective as a person with a disability who relies on the fixed-route, it is not that simple.

Here’s what I do know.  Mobility is extremely important to the disability community, and I can speak to this from experience. The disability community, and in particular those individuals who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service, should be included and engaged in the discussions regarding any proposed changes to MetroAccess.

I also believe that the focus of this dialogue on paratransit should be expanded to address how we can preserve and promote mobility for people living with disabilities in our region.  This will require thinking outside of the bus, so to speak, and should include other modes beyond ADA complementary paratransit.

Efforts are already underway to reduce MetroAccess costs. For example, the Centers for Independent Living in our area will soon be teaching people with disabilities how to use the less costly fixed-route bus and rail service when they are able to do so.  In addition, WMATA is about to implement a conditional eligibility process for ADA complementary paratransit.

However, we’ve got a long way to go before WMATA, the jurisdictions, and the disability community will all be ready for the major changes to MetroAccess outlined in the proposed FY2011 budget. Here’s a Q & A illustrating why:

Question: Is there a central number a person with a disability can call to find and reserve another ride if ADA complementary parartransit service is no longer available in his/her area or becomes cost prohibitive?

Answer: No.

Question: Are there currently other accessible, affordable transportation options beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route?

Answer: In many cases no, though this depends on the trip distance.  Fortunately, we have accessible taxicab service in our region.  However, lengthier trips will be cost-prohibitive for individuals at lower income levels and perhaps even to some at moderate income levels.  In addition, I can share from experience that some taxicab operators refuse or attempt to avoid the very short trips.  So, relying on taxicab service exclusively could be problematic for the disability community.

Question:  How many communities beyond ¾ mile of the fixed-route have robust transportation voucher programs to fill in remaining service gaps?

Answer: None, but there are some good programs out there that could be expanded (i.e., in Fairfax County).

Question: How far along are we as a region with human services transportation coordination?  Could that be part of the solution?

Answer: We’re not too far along yet, but we have great potential in this area to increase transportation options for people with disabilities through coordination.  This will take time, however, and will not happen soon enough to help us in FY2011.

Question: Why do people with disabilities who rely on ADA complementary paratransit service choose to live beyond ¾ miles of the fixed-route anyway?  Why can’t they just move if the service area changes?

Answer: Not all people with disabilities who rely on paratransit service choose where they live.  Some people live with family members who have already made the choice for them, and others simply live where they can afford to live. That is often not within ¾ mile of a Metro station or bus stop.

And finally…

Question: If Metro cuts back the paratransit service area to ¾ mile around the fixed-route, how will people with disabilities who previously relied on the paratransit service be able to get a job, rent their own apartments, go shopping, visit friends, and live independently?

(Sound familiar?  This is the same question I asked myself when I was 16 and did not have access to public transportation.)

Answer: I do not have a good answer.  Neither does WMATA.  Nor do the jurisdictions.

The truth is that some people with disabilities would have no transportation options.  I remember all too well what it was like to have no transportation options, and I would not wish that upon anyone.

Penny Everline has served on transportation advisory groups at the local, regional, and national levels including the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, the Fairfax Area Disability Services Board Transportation Committee, the Transportation Planning Board’s Access for All Advisory Committee, and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC) National Work Group.  She recently left her job with Easter Seals Project ACTION, a national training and technical assistance center funded through the Federal Transit Administration, to focus on advocacy work at the local/regional level.  She holds an MSW degree and teaches at George Mason University.