Wichita’s transit chief sought Friday to calm disabled people’s fears that they could be left behind when the city privatizes its paratransit system.
Transit Director Steve Spade promised that although the city is planning to contract out for dispatch services and the actual rides, it won’t shrink the service area and will retain and seek to improve the process for determining eligibility to use the service.
“This RFP (request for proposals) is for somebody to provide the day-to-day operation,” Spade said. “They won’t be setting policy. They won’t be doing the eligibility. They won’t be doing any kinds of appeals reviews, and the service areas and the fares will not change. So a lot will stay the same.”
Paratransit is the system of small buses that provide door-to-door rides for people whose disabilities prevent them from using the regular bus service. About 1,400 people use it now, but Census data indicates there are about 10 times that many disabled people in the city, Spade said.
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Concerns over privatization were aired Friday at a meeting of the city’s Transit Advisory Board.
Residents with disabilities told the board that recent changes in the fixed-route service are causing problems for blind people who are used to buses stopping at corners that no longer have bus stops.
“The biggest transition, perhaps more than the changes in routes themselves, that has been difficult for many people who I work with has been the installation of the bus stop signs and the policy that buses will only stop to pick people up or let people off at those signs,” said Michael Byington, an orientation and mobility specialist at Envision Inc.
“We were told, for at least a time the drivers would pick up anyone who had a guide dog or a white cane, something obvious to let them know they were visually impaired, at any pickup stop that would have been legitimate before,” said Byington, who is himself visually impaired. “In practicality, the people I work with tell me that that’s not always working real well.”
What often happens is that a blind person can find a stop to get on the bus, but ends up getting dropped off two or three blocks away from where their destination stop used to be, he said.
I’ve got a briefcase full of blindfolds here and a couple of white canes out in my car. I would be happy to let any of you who normally use your vision to get around off two to three blocks from where you thought you were getting off and see how easy you find it to locate a route you are familiar with and to move on.
Michael Byington, trainer in mobility for the blind
“That may not seem like much of an imposition,” Byington said. “But I’ve got a briefcase full of blindfolds here and a couple of white canes out in my car. I would be happy to let any of you who normally use your vision to get around off two to three blocks from where you thought you were getting off and see how easy you find it to locate a route you are familiar with and to move on.”
Byington also objected to rumored plans to limit access to the paratransit system to those who don’t live within three-fourths of a mile of a fixed-route bus stop. He expressed concern that private operators might try to “get as many people off of the (paratransit) rolls as they can.”
Spade replied that under transit policy, drivers are encouraged to pick up visually impaired people they see at the wrong corners, “and that will continue.”
There’s some bad information floating around that I want to clarify right now.
Steve Spade, Wichita Transit director
As for the concern about the limitation on service, “There’s some bad information floating around that I want to clarify right now,” Spade said.
“There is no recommendation, as part of this RFP or anywhere else, to shrink our service area to three-quarters of a mile,” he said. “That was a budget proposal in 2015. How somebody thinks it exists again is beyond me, but it doesn’t.”
He said there will be a strict separation of responsibilities in the privatization of paratransit, and the private vendor won’t have a role in deciding who’s eligible.
“They (the private contractor) will do the scheduling and the dispatching and provide the drivers,” Spade said. “Wichita Transit will continue to do the eligibility certification and the appeal process.”
Hadassah Prosser, a transit user with a variety of disabling conditions including disc degeneration in her back, said the eligibility process for paratransit isn’t all that good now.
She said she has a three-wheeled bike to get around but has to rely on transit when the weather turns. Often, that means long waits in the snow and ice at bus stops, she said.
“It makes things very difficult, and when I tried to apply for paratransit, one minute I get approved, the next minute they end up sending me a letter stating that I’m no longer approved. And I’m like, this is ridiculous, it’s hard for me to be able to get around.”
Spade acknowledged that “Right now the process is difficult to understand.” But he said Wichita Transit is working to streamline it.
“We’ve got a 15-page application that could be shrunk to eight, or maybe even three,” he said. “I think as we work through this process you’ll actually see an improvement in that.”
Moji Fanimokun, chairwoman of the transit board, said the system has been struggling since voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase in 2014, part of which would have paid to improve the transit system.
Most people don’t use the system themselves, so they don’t realize how vital it is for the disabled and others, she said.
“A lot of it is just a public perception out there that this is not a needed service,” Fanimokun said. “What this board needs, what the City Council needs, what Wichita Transit needs right now is help in giving the public awareness of the need for mass transit … for millennials, for retirees, there are a lot of segments of society that would love to have a better transit system.
“But unless we can get the public to become aware of that need and that desire, then they’re never going to give us what we need financially to be able to build a system of the future.”