Shuttle service not so fair for wheelchairs
It improved over the State Fair's run, but the switch to private buses forced some users to find other options.
By JIM FOTI, Star Tribune
Last update: September 8, 2009 - 8:33 AM
With reclining seats and onboard televisions, the motor coaches used for some of the Minnesota State Fair's free shuttles were a big step up from the transit buses of the past.
But for some fairgoers, the steps at the front of the bus prevented them from boarding, raising concerns about whether the new, privately run shuttles were fair to the disabled.
The shuttle service available to wheelchair users at the beginning of this year's fair "was certainly questionable as to whether it was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act," said Margot Imdieke Cross, accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability. On Friday, the fair increased the number of free-shuttle lots with wheelchair service from one to four -- still inadequate, she said, but better.
"We do hope that there will be vast improvement for next year," she said.
In previous years, the free park-and-ride service was jointly handled by Metro Transit and charters. In 2008, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) revised its rules to prohibit public transit agencies from doing work that private companies could provide, so Metro Transit's buses have been replaced by a charter fleet with varying levels of accessibility.
"Although FTA has no enforcement authority over private charter operators, we are concerned by reports of individuals in wheelchairs being denied equal access," Paul Griffo, senior public affairs officer for the agency, said Friday in an e-mail. Any evidence of violation of federal regulations should be shared with the Justice Department, he said.
Pickups and drop-offs
Although Metro Transit buses had the ability to pick up wheelchairs, the problem was "not knowing where you're dropped off," said Steve Grans, the fair's director of transportation. Some routes end on Midway Parkway, more than a block from the main gate, he said, and "it's a pretty good struggle to get through the parkway on the grass in a wheelchair."
That's why the fair originally set up a single wheelchair park-and-ride shuttle that brought people "within feet of the gate," Grans said. The added lots were chosen in part for their close-in drop-off points.
Lowell Miller of Minneapolis was accustomed to taking a free shuttle from the University of Minnesota park-and-ride near his home and said he never had trouble getting from the drop-off into the fair. This year, the charter bus couldn't accommodate his wheelchair, so he wound up taking a regular city bus route.
His monthly bus pass meant he didn't have to pay anything extra for the ride, but "it's the principle of the thing." The U of M was one of the three accessible sites added Friday.
Dick Caldwell of Arden Hills was among those who wished for better communication about the shuttles. He and his wife showed up at a park-and-ride lot in Roseville on the fair's first day and were unable to board. They then drove to the designated lot and had trouble finding a place to park their ramp-equipped van because so many people without wheelchairs were there.
"Once we got there, it worked, except for the transgressors," he said.
Disabled fairgoers weren't the only ones with complaints about this year's shuttles -- a surge in attendance overwhelmed many of the 33 free park-and-ride routes in the fair's first few days, leading to long waits. Grans said additional buses were brought in, leading to improved service and happier e-mails in his in-box.