Fred Wurtzel was in the back of a Lyft on his way to a physical therapy program. Wurtzel 71, of Lansing, who is blind, has relied on public transit for years.
Wurtzel has been completely blind since he was 50 from a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosis. As president of the Lansing branch of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, Wurtzel uses his experiences to advocate for better services and access for people with disabilities.
This next-day service is one of two key complaints disability rights advocates said impact their social and work lives. In addition to SpecTran, activists have raised alarms about the accessibility of CATA board meetings.
Paratransit options are required under federal laws and rules. The next-day requirement is the bare minimum to meet a federal transportation mandate. As a result, many people with disabilities who have unexpected health issues arise that need immediate attention may find barriers to getting transportation to healthcare appointments quickly.
Bradley T. Funkhouser, CATA’s CEO since 2018, said CATA does “everything in our power to accommodate” same-day requests, even on SpecTran.
His advice to people with disabilities was to request same-day service “because we are able to, in these one-off situations, make huge accommodations on a daily basis and will continue to do so.”
But such accommodations are difficult for an agency already making 1,200 trips a day.
“If we broadcast SpecTran is same-day, the system will blow up,” Funkhouser said.
Meridian Township resident Karla Hudson, 52, and her husband are both blind. They have raised a family and carried out careers working around CATA’s services, but it has not been easy.
Not only do they have to call the day before they need SpecTran services, but they also have to be ready during a 15-minute window for the small buses to arrive. If they are not ready, the bus moves on.
And because the service is taking multiple persons with disabilities to different locations, relying on SpecTran can be a risk for those with jobs.
“Can I get to my job to meet my employer’s needs? I gotta be there at 8 a.m. And even if I schedule my ride, there are times the ride will get you to your workplace late,” Hudson noted. “So how do we adjust for those things?”
That’s an important issue. People with disabilities had a 7.6 % unemployment rate in 2022, compared to 3.5% of those without a disability, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report from February.
The limits of SpecTran can also exacerbate social isolation for people with disabilities, Hudson said. Unlike people without disabilities, many who rely on paratransit can’t easily connect to a fixed bus route or jump into a car to head off for a spur-of-the-moment social gathering.
The frustration from trying to use paratransit and have a social life, Hudson said, leads many with disabilities to throw up their hands, declaring, “I just give up, you know?”
Throughout the tricounty region, there are three public transportation companies and a slew of private companies. All operate separately, creating silos of service. Funkhouser and his team said a slew of federal and state regulations prevent them from easily integrating the numerous options to take people with disabilities throughout Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.
His goal, he told the CATA board two weeks ago, is “seamless regional transportation” in the tricounty area to address the service delays and frustrations and isolation that paratransit can cause.
In October 2022, Funkhauser was appointed as executive director of Eaton County’s public transportation system, EATRAN. That allowed the two companies to extend a CATA route that used to end at the Lansing Mall to the new Delta Crossing shopping center in Delta Township. The new route, which began May 8, added 30 additional stops on the route.
“My vision regionally is to have not only the existing CATA system but the other two transit systems and even private carriers all working on the same plan,” he said in an interview, which he said is a big challenge.
We’ve gotta figure out the state regulations on transit,” which he said “are even more vexing to me than in some cases than the federal regulations.”
In addition to the cooperation and shared leadership at EATRAN and CATA, Funkhouser and his team has also struck a deal with Clinton County Public Transit to have connections to CATA routes. The move will require delicate navigation and negotiations among agencies, governments and the public to integrate a seamless transportation system serving the greater Lansing community, Funkhouser warned.
Meanwhile, though, to attend the CATA board meeting two weeks ago, Hudson not only had to call a day in advance to reserve a seat on SpecTran, she had to plan her arrival to assure she was on time for the meeting. As a result, she was at the Lansing Center, where the meeting was held, 40 minutes before the meeting was gaveled into session at 4 p.m.
Both Hudson and Wurtzel noted that they should not even have to travel to board meetings to make their views heard if CATA would reform its policy.
CATA allows people to watch board meetings by Zoom. However, if they want to use three minutes to comment during public comment sessions, things get frustrating, they said. They are required to write their statements in the chat feature of Zoom. A staff member then sends that statement to the board chair, who reads it out loud.
“They are the most absurd system I’ve ever heard of,” Wurtzel said. “First of all, I’m supposed to somehow submit my comments into some kind of chat box on the screen. I don’t know how to do that. I use a screen reader on my phone. I use an iPhone. It has a keyboard, but not a tactile keyboard. It’s extremely slow for me to type on my keyboard, and then I’m supposed to find the box and know the right commands somehow to put that message into that edit box.”
Referring to the board president, Wurtzel continued: “And then — this is the kicker: Nathan Triplet gets to read my comments on my behalf. I can’t even use my own voice to make my own public comment. It no longer is my public comment if it’s not my voice, as far as I’m concerned. My voice is my speech.”
The televideo service Zoom, which was popularized during the pandemic, has features allowing a host to mute participants until they are called upon, then unmute them to share their thoughts. Other public institutions are adjusting accordingly. For example, in its May 15 budget vote, the Lansing City Council shifted funding to the Lansing Public Media Center to pay a staffer to run Zoom during Council meetings and committee meetings, allowing for a remote opportunity to engage with the government. Fourth Ward Councilmember Brian Jackson introduced the budget amendment, which was unanimously approved.
The CATA board used to meet at the agency’s main offices on Tranter Street in south Lansing. Ironically, there is no public transportation to the building, even though it houses out-of-service buses.
To address that oddity, Triplett said the board was holding its meetings in various locations on busy fixed routes to accommodate more people. The nomadic nature of the meetings now, however, has a downside: access to stable, functional internet.
Triplett said the board is attempting to “maximize participation and transparency.”
While the obstacles of being nomadic and offering multiple options to access and participate in meetings have frustrated people like Hudson and Wurtzel, Triplett said the agency was making “a reasonable accommodation now.”
He conceded the situation is not “perfect or the ultimate solution.” The board is “regularly reviewing how that works as we change locations and gain more experience with using the platforms that are available.”
Wurtzel, Hudson and others will continue to advocate for shifts in paratransit programming as well as technology-driven solutions to allow for participation in the CATA board meetings. Even if that means Wurtzel has to spend significantly more on a Lyft to get places than the $2.50 fare for SpecTran.
His recent trip to the physical therapist cost him $13. He waxes somewhat philosophical on the compare and contrast between SpecTran and Lyft.
“The flip side is that I get there in seven minutes from here, and it takes me an hour to get there from here if I use SpecTran,” he said. “So, what am I getting for my $11? I’m getting almost an hour of my time. My time, I’m retired, but I still consider my time worth more than $11 an hour.”
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