The Utah Transit Authority responded to some of its harshest critics last week by announcing a plan to bring the bus company into closer compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Jim Clark, chairman of the agency's board of directors, said that despite spending millions of dollars in recent years to improve the transportation services it provides to the disabled, "we are still falling short in a few areas" and "see room for improvement in how we involve our disabled customers in determining policies and solving problems."The new program, outlined by General Manager John Inglish, received unanimous approval from the board. It involves upgrading UTA's Flextrans division, a fleet of 70 vehicles that provides transportation to the disabled in Salt Lake County on an as-needed basis.

The plan includes:

- Hiring a full-time Flextrans operations manager. Cheryl Beveridge has been reassigned from within UTA to fill that position temporarily.

- Hiring a Flextrans customer relations representative who will work full time to resolve complaints and keep passengers informed. The board hopes to have that position filled within a month.

- Starting in October a monthly Flextrans newsletter.

- Working with members of the disabled community to revise the agency's Flextrans Riders Guide and distributing it by the end of the year.

- Beginning next Thursday, holding three special meetings of the agency's Committee on Accessible Transportation to assist communication with the disabled community while the new plan is put into place.

- Rewriting all passenger forms associated with the Flextrans program in a "customer-friendly format."

- Computerizing the Flextrans reservation and dispatching system.

- Contracting with an independent firm to determine the eligibility of potential Flextrans riders.

- Lifting restrictions on Flex-trans riders who are now classified as "conditional" passengers, meaning they are eligible to use the service only under certain situations, such as bad weather. UTA will classify all Flextrans customers as unconditional until the new eligibility determinations are made.

"From past comments, we may have appeared insensitive or in some ways not fully committed," Clark said Wednesday. "This is not an accurate portrayal. We want to be even more sensitive and responsive to our paratransit customers."

Members of the disabled community, who have attended several meetings over the past year to voice their concerns, were absent Wednesday. Barbara Toomer, a longtime activist for people with disabilities, said UTA did not bother to inform members of the Disabled Rights Action League about Wednesday's meeting. But she called the announced plan a step in the right direction.

"It sounds like they're really trying to swim instead of treading water," Toomer said. "Actually, some of the things probably will work out very well. . . . These are upshots of the things we've been asking for."

Toomer said one of Flextrans riders' biggest complaints is that they are often denied service despite calling 24 hours ahead of time to schedule a ride. Service with a 24-hour notice is guaranteed by the ADA, she said.

Toomer said the league has been asking UTA to computerize its Flex-trans dispatching and reservation system for four years and isn't sure whether to believe that will happen anytime soon, despite Wednesday's announcement.

"I think it's really unfortunate that the disability community has to push the Utah Transit Authority to come into compliance" with ADA, she said.

UTA's Flextrans division, established in 1988, has more than 3,000 registered riders in Salt Lake County. In the other five counties within UTA's service district, transit service to the disabled is provided by contract with an independent company or organization.

Flextrans vehicles do not run regular routes. They pick up and deliver passengers on a request-only basis between the hours of 6 a.m. and midnight, six days a week. While some vans are used, most Flextrans vehicles are buses that can carry between seven and 13 passengers.

The estimated cost to the agency for providing a one-way trip is $16, but passengers pay $1 per ride.