Commuter Car Access? Still in Question!

I am continually amazed at how stupid otherwise fairly intelligent people can be. I sometimes convince myself that it is merely my perception of the situation, that there was some intelligence mixed in with the facts. On August 1O, though, when I visited the site of the future commuter rail station and sought to check out the train car for access, I truly found a group of people who were too far gone to be believed.

A reliable source at the Met Council told me that if I wanted to view the commuter train car that we in the state of Minnesota would probably be using someday, I should head over to a downtown parking lot between 4:00 and 5:30. So on a hot and sweaty Thursday afternoon, I ventured into downtown Minneapolis, paid my $2.00 in the parking lot and headed directly over to the commuter train display.

I located the ramped entrance into the train car–it was behind a fence. Now, to find the entrance through the fence. The opening in the fence was quite a distance from the ramped train car entrance and, to make matters worse, the entrance through the fence wasn’t accessible. There was a curb, ground covered with wood chips, a rather steep incline and a boardwalk consisting of 8′ pieces of plywood which were placed together in an awkward and disjointed manner.

An individual from Northstar immediately approached who wanted to know if he could carry me down to the boardwalk. I said no and sarcastically asked if this apparent lack of access was their definition of access. The moment grew increasingly heated as more and more representatives of Northstar showed up and, with blank expressions and inane chatter, tried to figure out what to do. It was apparent to me that I needed two ramps–one to bring me up the curb and one on the other side of the curb to get me down to the boardwalk.

Tim Yontose, the Project Manager, was suddenly next to me and I demanded to know why there weren’t enough ramps. He looked at me and said “We’ve got all the ramps that were available.” Available? Available from where? Did he do an exhaustive search throughout the State of Minnesota, or even the City of Minneapolis? Could he possibly be telling me that in all of the Twin City area he could only find that single metal ramp that was placed by the entrance of the train car? Available? I was truly stumped, could there be a severe metal ramp shortage that I’m not aware of, a shortage which could seriously impact our access into functions similar to this commuter train display? It didn’t matter though, according to Tim, the train was preparing to leave in one minute. I looked him squarely in the eyes and said “I was told that the train car could be viewed from 4:00 to 5:30.”

“Oh, no,” he replied, “that’s when the ice cream social was happening, the train is leaving for Coon Rapids in one minute.” I repeated what I had been told and refused to back down.

Suddenly, a maintenance crew arrived and the crew leader asked if there was something he could do. “Do,” I said, “I need some ramps!”

“You’ve got it!”-he didn’t miss a beat. As the crew leader shouted out orders to his crew, it quickly became apparent what he was doing. He had his crew disassemble the ramp that was leading into the train car and place it at the curb. Again he shouted “Gentlemen, I need you to…” and six bodies flew into action. I looked around me and noticed that the onlookers and

passengers, who had previously been simply annoyed with the woman in the wheelchair holding up their trip, were now visibly horrified at what was happening. I signaled the crew leader and called “Let’s forget it, I’m getting real self-conscious here.”

He insisted, “Ma’am it’s my job to make sure people can get on the train, and I’m going to do my job!” With that he flew back into action.

As the maintenance crew was busy establishing an accessible path of travel for me, I took the opportunity to impart a few words of wisdom to Tim and his staff, or, more specifically, anyone within earshot. They didn’t have one good reason for what happened. Someone dropped the ball, someone decided that access to the curb and boardwalk wasn’t necessary, but it would look good to have a ramp propped up to one of the car doors.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Since the passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, access has been required in projects that receive or benefit from federal funding. O.K., maybe the commuter train system isn’t getting a lick of federal funds (that’s hard to believe, but let’s just make that assumption), but has anyone at Northstar ever heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act? It was signed into law 10 years ago! O.K., so let’s look at the big picture here, the players in this fiasco–Northstar, the MN Department of Transportation and the Met Council–have had anywhere from 10 to 27 years to get their act together and, in my opinion, the only people I’m talking to who have any sort of clue are the maintenance guys!

The maintenance guys got me to the door identified as the wheelchair accessible entrance, by whom I don’t know. As soon as I came through the door, an individual representing the manufacturer greeted me. I looked around and asked ” Where’s the wheelchair seating, the tie downs, the accessible restroom?”

“At the other end of the car,” he answered. The car was packed with people, the aisle was narrow, I would never make it to the other end of the train car. The idiots had identified the wrong door and I had run out of time and patience. I signaled the crew guy that had guided me over the boardwalk and up the ramp and we departed. I had barely gotten down the ramp when it was whisked away and the train started on its way to Coon Rapids.

I seriously question if we should put our trust in a commuter company that can’t even provide basic access to a site. It concerns me that the guy in charge worried more about the train leaving on time than he did about a legal obligation to provide access. Additional words of wisdom for Northstar: Get with the program; provide the access that’s required by law and that includes site access. Smarten up quick because this could have been a charge of discrimination instead of an article in this newspaper. Give the maintenance guys a raise! And the next time you plan to do something that includes the public, maybe you should use a little common sense, or, if you can’t find any, consult someone who knows more about access than you do, shouldn’t be hard!

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