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Public transit more accessible for people with disabilities, but some see room for more improvement

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 6:34 p.m. MDT

Lee Bias maneuvers through the mud to get onto a UTA bus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lee Bias has not taken a step in many years, but that has not kept her from making big strides in helping to increase mobility for scores of people who find themselves unable to get around by traditional means.

Bias, 59, uses a power wheelchair for her mobility due to the lasting impact of a spinal cord injury suffered in an ATV crash that happened almost a decade ago. She lives on her own, is a single mom with grown children and several grandchildren.

She is the chairperson of the Utah Transit Authority Committee on Accessible Transportation — the agency’s citizen advisory committee. And it's through that affiliation that she is making a difference in improving the lives of others.

“(UTA) really listens to what we have to say,” Bias, a Salt Lake resident, said. “They get our opinion on so many things to help make public transportation accessible to anyone.”

The injury left Bias unable to walk. She does not drive, relying on her wheelchair and public transit to maintain her independence.

“I don’t want to have to depend on someone having to take me (around),” she said.

Bias refers to herself as “vertically challenged” rather than disabled. She said over the years, UTA has come a long way toward making its system more user-friendly to people like her.

“They have training for their drivers on how to treat people with disabilities so that they don’t feel 'less than' anyone else,” she said. And the trains and buses have improved access.

Bias said the addition of new train cars on the TRAX commuter rail line when UTA launched its Mid-Jordan Red Line and West Valley Green Line in August 2011 included flat-laying ramps at each entrance to allow for easier access for wheelchair riders.

Initially, there were complaints about how the ramp did not always operate properly, but when riders voiced their concerns, the agency made adjustments to remedy the problem.

Similarly, adjustments were made to the yellow-striped boarding areas on train platforms that were designed to help the visually impaired recognize their location on the platform. When the painted areas became wet, it become very slick and potentially hazardous, Bias explained.

“The people that are disabled said these were problems for us, and (UTA) worked on them until they got them fixed,” she said. While the agency has been committed to address many mobility issues, it has not been able to resolve every one.

Cindy Vega, 41, is blind but also has multiple physical disabilities. She sometimes uses a cane or her guide dog, Seattle, as well as a power wheelchair or a walker when traveling about in the community. She works at the State Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired as a computer instructor.

When the TRAX trains on the Red and Green lines began, visually impaired passengers were left in a quandary because getting on or off of the train requires the rider to push a button to activate the door. For sight-impaired passengers, it is a challenge that has yet to be adequately addressed.

“If a blind person needs to have the ramp and the door, how are we going to be able to find the button in time before the train takes off,” she queried. “Also, are we going to be able to find the middle of the platform (in the place where the doors are on the train)?”

She said those are some of the issues UTA should have considered when they decided to purchase the train models that are currently in use on two major commuter rail lines on weekdays … and the entire system on the weekends.

“We wished that UTA would have listened a little bit more,” Vega said. “Now the trains are already up and running.”

Such issues are usually addressed on a case-by-case basis, said Sherry Repscher, Americans with Disabilities Compliance Officer for the Utah Transit Authority. Orientation and Mobility Skills Training is available through the State Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired for individuals who may need assistance in finding solutions to navigate around using UTA services, she said.

“How and what guides or cues a rider needs is usually addressed based on individual need and experience,” Repscher said. “Many riders use the shelters on the platform as a 'marker' to find and then guide them to a spot to wait for boarding the train. There have been some access logos placed on the platform to help riders in finding a spot where the doors open.”

Some riders may use their cane to tap along side the stopped train to find the doors, while others rely on asking another waiting rider to direct them toward the door opening, she continued.

Repscher also explained that all door open buttons have Braille and raised letter markings to aid the sight-impaired. In addition, automated audible cues can help blind riders navigate TRAX, she said.

“UTA has worked with (train car manufacturer) the Siemens Company to address these accessibility features,” she said.

Vega said challenges exist particularly for those blind riders who might be on the platform alone, but train operators have been trained to look for people with disabilities so that can open the doors for them, if needed.

Previously, the agency had operated different cars that required that disabled riders utilize a raised platform where train operators would manually set ramps that would allow access to the front entrance of the train. Those “classic” cars are still in use on the Sandy Blue Line.

Vega said she preferred the older train cars because they provided easier access for someone with her challenges. She also said that while she understands UTA’s rationale on trying to provide newer trains, sometimes upgrading equipment does always improve service.

Every bus in the UTA fleet is equipped with ground-level ramps, which gives virtually all disabled riders better access, and avoids some of the issues that may be faced on TRAX. FrontRunner commuter rail has automatic opening doors on all trains.

UTA also operate Paratransit buses that disabled riders can arrange to take them door-to-door between destinations, Repscher said.

UTA's Paratransit Service ADA program is a service for people with physical, cognitive or visual disabilities who are functionally unable to independently use the UTA fixed route bus service either all of the time, temporarily or only under certain circumstances. One hundred percent of the fixed route bus and TRAX light rail service is wheelchair accessible with lift-equipped or low floor buses and trains, she said.

Other accommodations such as stop announcements made by drivers and assisting passengers with disabilities make using the fixed route bus service possible for many people with disabilities, she added.

People who are determined to be eligible for Paratransit Service are assigned an eligibility category that is consistent with their ability to use the fixed route bus and TRAX light rail service, she explained.

“Public transportation is one of those issues that we can all benefit from,” Repscher explained. “Eliminating barriers while trying to balance the cost of the service for those on low or fixed income to be able to afford the transportation they need to meet required appointments or just to be able to go grocery shopping.”

She said there are many ongoing issues that UTA reviews with the CAT committee and internally in an effort to develop an efficient system that is accessible to everyone.

“Our intent is to make the service integrated so that we won’t have to have a separate service for people with disabilities,” Repscher explained. “Our ultimate goal is get people to the bus stops or train stations to ride with everyone else.”

E-mail: jlee@deseretnews.com

Twitter: JasenLee1

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