Able-bodied citizens of Salt Lake County who walk to their bus stops and ride the regular Utah Transit Authority buses are being discriminated against, contends Steven C. Stewart.

Why? Because they don't enjoy the same "remarkable" service Stewart does with the new FlexTrans bus system.Stewart, who has cerebral palsy, is picked up by a modern FlexTrans bus at his door step, driven to wherever he wants to go in Salt Lake County and then given a ride home.

Before this new service, which became effective July 5, Stewart had tremendous difficulty getting to a bus stop several miles away - particularly in bad weather.

When it rained or snowed, the belts on the wheels of his electric wheelchair would stop, often leaving him stranded in the middle of an intersection. Often, he would stay home rather than "risk his life" crossing slippery streets and sidewalks.

Now, he doesn't need to worry about the weather, unlike those who ride the regular UTA buses.

"The general ridership have to stand waiting in all kinds of weather. They can't go anywhere in Salt Lake County for 50 cents with only one transfer like I can. That's less than I would spend if I could drive a car."

Like others who are disabled, Stewart is enjoying more freedom with the FlexTrans service.

Previously, the private van service was limited to employment, medical or education appointments. If Stewart wanted to go shopping downtown, he would have to travel to his bus stop, get on a lift-adapted UTA bus and then transfer buses several times.

Now, disabled persons are able to call the FlexTrans bus to take them anywhere - shopping, to the movies, library, park, to see a friend or to a restaurant. The recreational freedom enriches Stewart's enjoyment of life, he said.

The service is offered to all transportation-disabled persons. This includes those with any disability that prevents them from using the regular UTA system.

Stewart's wife, for instance, occasionally suffers from seizures, so she often uses the FlexTrans system.

Elderly persons who have severe arthritis are also taking advantage of the service.

FlexTrans has won the "guarded" approval of Mark Smith, a leader in the local chapter of the American Disabled For Accessive Public Transit group.

Ideally, Smith would like to see all UTA buses wheelchair lift equipped instead of "segregating the disabled from the mainstream public" through specialized buses.

But until the day when UTA fully realizes its responsibility to lift-equip all buses, the FlexTrans is an acceptable alternative, Smith said.

Most of the reports he receives from those who use the service are positive - drivers are courteous and caring. The most common complaint is that buses arrive late.

However, the ADAPT group is willing to give FlexTrans a chance to improve service, since the program is still in its infancy, Smith said. "I want to see this succeed," he said.

Kathy McGuire, coordinator of Special Transit Services, said FlexTrans serves more than 260 persons in the Salt Lake County area, providing an average of 105 trips a day. The number of those using FlexTrans grows each day. (In areas outside of Salt Lake County, UTA has contracted with private services to provide transportation to the disabled.)

The 15 FlexTrans buses, which can accommodate seven wheelchairs each, cost $120,000 each, compared to about $150,000 for a conventional bus. The federal government covers 80 percent of the cost and UTA pays 20 percent.

Realizing the lift-adapted buses did not meet the needs of many disabled, McGuire worked for nearly three years to bring the FlexTrans system to Utah.

"This has been a long time coming and is very much overdue. The handicapped really deserve much more."