Route Limitations | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In Anne Nalepa's Shaler Township neighborhood, parts of Evergreen Road have no sidewalks or curb cuts for her power wheelchair.

If she wants to get to a bus stop, Nalepa sometimes takes to the streets, traveling at 5 miles per hour. Impatient drivers have yelled at her obscenely to get off the road. Her answer: "I would if I could."

Nalepa knows from her own experience -- and her counseling work at the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living -- how difficult it can be to get around in areas without curb cuts or sidewalks, or with holes and obstructions on sidewalks. And when it comes to mass transit, riders with physical disabilities say they already contend with crowded buses, malfunctioning wheelchair lifts and widely spaced bus stops.

If Port Authority's proposed 35 percent service reduction goes through in January, Nalepa says things will get much worse. She uses the 61 and 71 series buses for personal travel as well to visit clients, and a handful of those routes will be eliminated or see significant service reduction.

"For many of us, the only affordable means is Port Authority and the absolutely only spontaneous means," she says.

Nalepa and her clients represent a key constituency for transit. On buses, light rail and the Mon Incline in 2009, the registered number of riders with disabilities was 754,802, according to farebox figures.

Many of those riders fear the impact that potential cuts may have on their mobility.

Shirley Abriola, a social worker for UPMC, uses a wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy. Abriola told officials at an Aug. 19 public hearing that her former bus stop was in front of Mercy Hospital, in Uptown. It's now on Fifth Avenue, and she has to go up Stevenson Street, a steep hill between Fifth and Boulevard of the Allies. "I've toppled over in my wheelchair many times," she said. "That hill is dangerous."

Other riders' disabilities may present less-visible challenges, Nalepa adds. Those with Asperger's syndrome or autism, for example, may get confused about new patterns. Using one bus may be manageable for such riders, but if cuts force them to transfer between buses, Nalepa worries, some may not be able to use the county's transit system at all.

Even in the best of times, that system can be difficult to navigate.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, all Port Authority vehicles have to be accessible, and operators are trained to assist customers who use wheelchairs. But agency spokeswoman Heather Pharo says that on average, between three and five wheelchairs are passed up by buses each day -- because, for instance, the wheelchair lift is inoperable, or the bus is already overcrowded. If a rider is passed up, Pharo says, operators are supposed to report it. If another bus isn't coming along in the next 30 minutes, pickup arrangements are supposed to be made.

Nalepa contends that she has had multiple buses pass her until she pulled in front of one to stop. She does acknowledge, however, that service improves temporarily if she complains about it, and Pharo encourages any riders with disabilities to alert PAT to such issues.

Pharo also acknowledges that there is wheelchair-lift failure in some vehicles and there are maintenance needs in multiple categories, including lifts.

"We understand it's a vital component of our ridership and that improvements need to be made for wheelchair users," she says.

The Port Authority sponsors a door-to-door transportation service called ACCESS for the elderly and riders with disabilities. But riders say it isn't always timely because it requires a reservation and sharing the vehicle with other customers.

"ACCESS is never on time," agrees Betty Schamberry, an 84-year-old Homewood resident who uses a wheelchair. So Schamberry relies on the bus to get to her doctor's office and the senior center. At times, she says, she's gone to a medical appointment and been sent immediately for blood work; that was too little notice for ACCESS, so she had to rely on the bus.

The Port Authority says the ACCESS service's on-time performance is currently at 96.4 percent, and it works with Classy Cab to offer backup rides if a vehicle is very late. No changes are proposed for ACCESS and Port Authority notes that ACCESS can increase its capacity by adding vehicles and drivers, since every trip pays for itself.

Pharo also points out that PAT plans to continue enforcing policies on the buses to keep certain seats open for wheelchair users or riders with disabilities. As service changes occur, the agency says it will monitor them and see where problems arise and try to correct them.

Riders, nonetheless, maintain their concern about the proposal.

"Excluding anyone is not a public service," says Nalepa. "It becomes exclusive for the young and able-bodied."

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