Almost three years after disabled would-be bus passengers staged demonstrations for access to public transportation, the Utah Transit Authority is scheduled to begin offering them a special service that is already being labeled discriminatory.

The service is FlexTrans, which is short for "flexible transportation service." The $1.8 million fleet, which includes 15 scaled-down buses with platforms that can be lowered nearly to ground level for easy entrance and exit by wheelchair, is expected to begin running in July.The discriminatory label comes from a member of the group that held several protests against UTA in September 1985. The goal of the wheelchair-bound demonstrators who halted buses downtown by rolling in front of them was to have access to all of UTA's buses.

Today, 38 of the authority's approximately 380 buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts. FlexTrans buses will pick up disabled riders outside their residences and take them to a station at 1900 S. State St., where they can either connect with one of the wheelchair-lift-equipped buses or another FlexTrans bus.

Having a separate bus system to serve the disabled discriminates against them, said Mark Smith, the community resource coordinator for the Utah Independent Living Center.

"It is another system in which people identified as being disabled cannot have the same service as other people. It is a discriminatory system," he said.

John Inglish, UTA operations director, said installing equipment to accommodate wheelchairs would be cheaper than operating the FlexTrans fleet but could strand many disabled passengers who are unable to get themselves to a bus stop.

That, he said, is discrimination against the disabled, not offering them so-called "curb-to-curb" bus service FlexTrans provides.

"The issue of discrimination has to do with the issue of mobility," Inglish said. "To not provide the high level of mobility would be discriminating."

Debra Mair, executive director of the Utah Independent Living Center, said there has been concern among the wheelchair-bound about the project taking too long, which could result in more protests if the results aren't judged to have been worth the wait.