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Houston looks to ease mass transit woes for the disabled

HOUSTON — The slightest imperfection, such as an uneven portion of sidewalk that most can step over, brings Lex Frieden to a dead stop in his motorized wheelchair. So do utility poles, mud and other common complications along Houston sidewalks on the way to his bus stop.

Rolling toward the intersection of Almeda and MacGregor, just across the street from Hermann Park, Frieden finds the first challenge separating him from the Route 4 bus: a washed-out segment of sidewalk.

“If it’s raining, it’s impassable,” Frieden, a member of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/2oRkX54 ). “So what do I do then?”

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act — and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders — such as tense interactions with bus operators — the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

MetroLift riders pay $1.25, just like those who use standard bus service. The agency charges a higher premium fare for rides traveling outside the Metro service area.

Earlier this year, Metro approved free rides on the conventional system for anyone eligible for MetroLift, a move cheered by Frieden. Rides on MetroLift must be scheduled in advance, requiring passengers to make early arrangements and set both pickup and return times accurately.

Access to the conventional transit use allows more spontaneous trips for blind, wheelchair-using and elderly travelers who otherwise would need to schedule a MetroLift pick up.

“We want to remove as many disincentives as possible to getting people on the system,” Frieden said.

MetroLift, meanwhile, has undergone numerous changes in the past few years, ranging from training for drivers, better accountability of timing for both drivers and passengers and programs to help disabled patrons navigate the bus and rail system — essentially teaching them riding skills to increase independence.

“Customer satisfaction is going up over time,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Complaints are not uncommon for a transit agency the size of Metro and still occur on an hourly basis. The transit agency maintains its own call center, which received more than 77,000 in February, responding to everything from bus arrival information to logging complaints. For the first five months of the fiscal year that started in October, the number of calls to Metro are down about 25 percent.

Officials concede not everything has gone smoothly in terms of improving disabled passengers’ access. A parade of paratransit users concerned about problems spurred Metro to action last month, specifically regarding how wheelchair users are secured on buses.

“Something must be done,” said Mark Rushing, one of two wheelchair users who told Metro officials on March 23 that drivers often do not properly secure them on buses or do not provide a shoulder strap once their chairs are secured.

Metro staff said similar concerns were raised during meetings with a local disability advocacy group.

How disabled passengers are treated by bus operators is a mix of federal requirements and Metro policy, according to Andy Skabowski, the transit agency’s chief operations officer. When someone in a wheelchair is waiting at a stop, drivers are instructed to stop the vehicle, lower the bus and its ramp, and make sure it is safe for them to leave the driver’s seat.

Then, they are instructed to help the passenger, ask others to move from seats reserved for the elderly and disabled, and secure their wheelchair. Metro’s various bus models, ranging from small buses used for paratransit to different 40-foot conventional buses, have various mechanisms to secure wheelchairs.

Skabowski said Metro policy dictates that drivers should offer passengers a shoulder restraint to help them remain in the chair during a collision or sudden stop, but riders are not required to wear seat belts.

Rushing said drivers often are unwilling or combative about providing the help, which Metro officials conceded was not the service they wanted to provide.

“This is a training and retraining issue,” said Tim Kelly, Metro’s executive vice president for operations, public safety and customer service. “Just one occasion of this is too many.”

Frieden applies the same logic to access to the stops, noting one obstacle makes other improvements moot. The corner of Almeda and MacGregor is littered with them: uneven sidewalk segments, ramps deteriorated to crumbling pavement and poles blocking the way.

“Metro has a responsibility because look how close it is to a bus stop,” he said. “This is one dag-gum bus stop. Now multiply that across the city.”

Even new construction sometimes fails to live up to expectations. At Shepherd and Westheimer, where workers did extensive street and sidewalk repairs as part of a major water, drainage and street overhaul, a bus stop was replaced with a gravel sitting area. That’s fine for many people but inaccessible for someone who uses a wheelchair.

“They have blocked off the space, and that’s beautiful,” said Frieden, 68. “But despite all the work, this still doesn’t work.”

Across the street, a utility pole blocks part of the ramp a disabled person would use to access the crosswalk.

Meanwhile, a nearby bus stop with a shelter — untouched by the recent sidewalk rehab — is now off-limits to Frieden because the sidewalk and concrete pad don’t line up. Even an inch or two can make all the difference, he noted. Those types of obstacles can keep someone from considering the bus as a possible travel option.

Frieden is eager to put Metro’s resources of hundreds of bus operators to work on the problem.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if a driver of a bus or train or a MetroLift driver got some sort of reward for reporting an inaccessible stop or sidewalk,” he mused. “Maybe a T-shirt or something just to thank them for the effort.”

Thinking even broader, Frieden said anyone can get in on the action of making Houston accessible.

“When someone sees something out there, I don’t see a reason why there couldn’t be a way to let caring individuals in our community report them,” he said.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Houston Chronicle

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