Everyday Advocacy: Paratransit Problems?

Q. Despite the fact that I’ve been a paratransit rider for the past four years, the local transit agency is telling me that I am suddenly too heavy to qualify for their service. They have given me 30 days to appeal their decision. During the past year they have established a 600-pound weight limit for their lifts, and since I am a larger person who uses a sizable motorized wheelchair, I don’t comply with the new weight limitations. Are they allowed to do that? I’m also concerned because they are posting potential changes in the fixed route bus schedules and routing, so there is a possibility that such paratransit services wouldn’t be available to me in the near future anyway. Is there anything that I can do to protect my ability to use paratransit?
— Kenny

A. It has become more common for transit agencies to place weight restrictions on riders to avoid unnecessary damage to their equipment or a lift failure that might result in injury to either passengers or operators. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Transportation Vehicles, the minimum capacity for wheelchair lifts on any type of transportation vehicle is 600 pounds.  While many transit agencies are purchasing newer vehicles that have a lift capacity of 750 pounds or greater, that is not mandatory. Rulemaking efforts underway by the Department of Transportation will address this issue, but the final regulations are not available at this time.

When you and your wheelchair were weighed, were all removable accessories taken off the chair? If not, request that they weigh you again. Another option might be to request service using newer vehicles that have greater weight capacity on the lift or ramp — if the provider has multiple types of paratransit vehicles in service. Complications with scheduling may prevent that from happening, but it is worth a try.

Some paratransit riders are unaware of the close relationship between fixed transit routes and paratransit service areas. Transit providers are only required to provide complementary paratransit within .75 of a mile on any side of the fixed transit routes. They do have an option to provide paratransit service up to 1.5 miles in all directions from the fixed route, including at the end of it, but that is a local option and not required. If someone lives within that local paratransit service corridor, even if their residence is outside the city or county limits where the transit system is based, they should be eligible to use the paratransit system if all other eligibility requirements were met.

This relationship between complementary paratransit and fixed bus routes, along with hours of service, is why it is so important for riders to stay informed about reductions in service or changes in fixed route bus service. Changing a bus route may not appear to be a big deal, but if that change results in your suddenly being outside the paratransit service corridor, it could make a big difference in your quality of life. If you rely on paratransit for work or school, a change in hours of service might make that commute difficult or impossible.

You have several options when it comes to maintaining your ability to use paratransit. Your first step can be to appeal the weight decision, seeking access to different types of vehicles that can accommodate you as detailed above. It is also important that you and many of your peers who rely on paratransit attend meetings regarding bus routing and hours of service.

Most transit systems have a separate advisory committee regarding paratransit and other disability-related issues, and attending those meetings on a regular basis is a good way to signify your interest in the proceedings and to learn more about what is being planned. Don’t underestimate the powerful statement that is made when you and several of your friends who use mobility devices line up in the front row of a meeting of the transit board and testify about the valuable service that paratransit provides in your community.

If none of the above seems to work, and you feel that the ADA is being violated by the transit agency or its contracted providers, you can file a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C. Be forewarned that investigating a complaint takes time, and it may be several months before corrective action can be taken. Michael Collins is the former executive director of the National Council on Disability and of the California State Independent Living Council. Send questions to Tim Gilmer.

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