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SCAT cuts make disabled into unwilling homebodies

by Amy Kingsley

Sheila Trexler’s parents live on the opposite side of Guilford County from her home at Bell House, a center for disabled adults near the old Carolina Circle Mall on Summit Avenue. But they might as well live on the other side of the world.

“I’m only getting home once a year because I have no way to get there,” she said.

Trexler can’t visit her parents’ home because it sits outside – just outside – the official city limits, a point beyond which the SCAT bus she uses for transportation will not venture. Instead her parents visit her at Bell House and sometimes they meet closer to town, at the Wal-Mart on Wendover Avenue or the Four Seasons Mall.

Trexler, like many of the other Bell House residents, uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Her disability hasn’t kept her from securing a job at Wal-Mart, where she works three or four times a week, or participating at Reedy Fork Baptist Church. She’s worried, however, that changes in the fare structure for SCAT, Greensboro’s paratransit system for the disabled, might make her transportation around town as uncertain as those infrequent trips to her parents’ house.

“I know the prices have to go up a little bit,” she said. “But if they go up that much people will have to stay at home even if they don’t want to.”

The proposed fare increase, from $35 a month for an unlimited ride pass to $72 for a 60-ride pass, has dismayed some members of Greensboro’s disability community. The cohort from Bell House has been among the most vocal opponents of the change, which is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2007.

On Aug. 24, their cause gained a couple of powerful allies, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina and the NC Governor’s Advocacy Council for Person’s with Disabilities. Attorneys from those organizations signed a letter sent to Mayor Keith Holliday and members of the city council announcing an investigation into whether the rate hike violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Anjail Ahmad, a creative writing professor at NC A&T University who is also blind, contacted the ACLU. Ahmad is also involved with CAN DO, an advocacy organization for the disabled citizens of Greensboro.

“It’s not like these people can just call a friend for a ride,” said Claire Holmes. “Most of them need vehicles with lifts.”

Both the city and the disability community have wielded finances in the ticket-price tussle. Residents of Bell House receive only a $66 monthly allowance for discretionary spending, an amount that must accommodate travel expenses, clothes and essentials like soap, shampoo and toothpaste. At $72 dollars a pop, the 60-ride pass would be beyond their means.

City officials have argued that the service is simply too expensive and consumes a disproportionate amount of the transit budget. The price to the city for a one-way trip on SCAT is $23 within the major service areas and over $31 outside of that. Councilwoman Florence Gatten has contended that abuse of unlimited ride passes by a few riders has driven up costs by as much as $500,000.

The ACLU letter singled out one statement by Gatten, that “the city can’t afford to continue the unlimited monthly pass because SCAT riders have abused it.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act stipulates municipalities cannot impose priorities or restrictions on travelers. Bus drivers are not allowed even to ask riders the purpose of their trip. In addition, riders cannot be penalized for the length of their trips or any missed trips.

Right now, SCAT riders can place a standing order to be picked up at a certain time every day or week. Gatten and others on the task force said that canceled and missed trips have cost the city thousands of dollars.

People on both sides of the issue said that Greensboro’s current paratransit system is among the most generous in the country.

“The [unlimited ride pass] is very rare in comparison to the rest of the country,” Holmes said.

Several cities within the state do offer unlimited ride passes, including Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill. Winston-Salem currently charges paratransit riders 70 cents per ride, as opposed to the $2.20 proposed fare for single rides in Greensboro.

Unlike Guilford County, which splits its transit dollars between three systems in Greensboro, High Point and the county, Forsyth County has one transit system to fund. That allows them to offer deep discounts for the expensive service, said Dottie Neely, a visually impaired social worker who serves on the SCAT task force.

Neely said the city went far beyond the dictates of the Americans with Disabilities Act in offering the unlimited ride pass and servicing to areas beyond the required three-quarters of a mile outside of fixed routes. Now it is time for SCAT riders to accommodate a more limited but fiscally sound program, she said.

“I think they are playing on people’s heartstrings maybe a little incorrectly,” Neely said.

Riders do not have to choose between grocery shopping and medical trips because Medicaid will pay for doctor’s visits, she said. Also, those riders with jobs can deduct transportation expenses from their income, which has a maximum cap set by the Social Security Administration.

Neely also said that SCAT riders who are able to work will earn enough even at minimum wage to pay for transportation to and from their jobs. Those who do not work will simply have to cut down the number of trips they take, she said, much like those in the non-disabled community must budget trips when gas prices rise.

The ACLU and Governor’s Advocacy Council will also be investigating whether the price hike means that SCAT riders will be paying more than double the fare for regular fixed-route service. The task force raised the price of an unlimited ride pass for fixed-route riders from $35 to $40. If a SCAT rider has to use the service 80 times in a month, they will be paying more than twice as much as a fixed-route bus rider, Holmes said. Charging more than twice the regular bus rate for paratransit service violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The [Americans with Disabilities Act] says nothing about passes,” Neely said. “If the base fare for regular service is $1.10, we could charge as much as $2.20 for SCAT.”

Raising the fare was the best compromise the city could make, Neely said. Other options included discontinuing service outside of the area mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act or eliminated routes on evenings and weekends. The uproar would possibly have been even greater if the city had opted for one of the other money-saving options.

And any decision the city made would mean less freedom for the group at Bell House and all the other citizens who cannot simply walk, ride a bike or take a normal GTA bus to their destination.

“It’s like they’re putting people under house arrest but they haven’t done anything wrong,” said Jennifer Rudinger, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of North Carolina.

Carl Haislip is among those who might end up under a de facto house arrest, a situation that is not wholly unfamiliar to him. Before he settled into Bell House several months ago, Haislip lived in a small town with few services for the disabled. He moved to Greensboro to sample some of the independence that comes with living in a more accessible community. If the rate hike passes, his move would be for naught, he said.

“It would defeat the purpose of me coming to Bell House because I would lose my independence,” Haislip said.

Andrew Wythe, another Bell House resident, said it ‘s not just the disabled who will be affected. Elderly riders who often live on fixed-incomes would also be impacted, he said.

Lawyers from the ACLU and Governor’s Advocacy Council will be scrutinizing the potential impact and the cost figures the city has provided for the next four months. Grey Powell from the Governor’s Advocacy Council said he hopes the disabled community and city can reach an agreement before the new fares take effect.

“I would certainly hope so,” Powell said. “It would certainly be in the city’s best interest. What’s going on now doesn’t make them look very good.”

Wythe and the other residents of Bell House plan to attend every city council meeting until the issue is settled. He’s taking a page out of the 1960s protest textbook – with a twist. He stressed the need for solidarity and strength in numbers within the disability community.

“The more wheelchairs we get on the ground the better,” he said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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