HISTORY NOTE: It was a long and bumpy journey for paratransit services to get started

How we people with disabilities get around is not a new issue.  Fifty years ago, the Minnesota Legislature ordered that […]

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How we people with disabilities get around is not a new issue. 

Fifty years ago, the Minnesota Legislature ordered that transit service be provided for people with disabilities. State lawmakers in 1974 added four-hundredths of one mill to metropolitan area property tax bills to fund the program. The tax was expected to generate $240,000, which would be matched with $150,000 in federal dollars. 

State lawmakers had heard from many disabled constituents, who needed viable paratransit options. Buses were not accessible to everyone. 

Mandating accessible transit or paratransit was one thing. Providing it would be quite another. The task of setting up service in the Twin Cities was placed in the hands of the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC). The MTC in turn set up a steering committee, the Metropolitan Transit Committee for the Disabled, to study paratransit issues. 

“Transit for handicapped may be available soon” was a headline in the October 25, 1974 Star Tribune. The article noted that personal transit service could be provided to some disabled Minneapolis and Robbinsdale residents before Christmas. 

The MTC planned to purchase special vans or small buses that were accessible to people with disabilities. “Drivers will receive physical, psychological and sensitivity training,” the article stated. 

The initial idea was that service was to be tailored to riders’ individual destinations, with some rides available through an on-demand, dial-a-ride service. Other rides would have to be reserved at last 24 hours in advances. 

Fares were to be the same as those under the MTC zone system, with a base of 30 cents. The zone system meant varying fees were paid, set by length of ride. 

Deciding where the paratransit vehicles would operate provide to be controversial among the project’s 17-member steering committee. The project was to serve a small area, of potentially 13 miles in diameter. 

Service to Minneapolis’ North Side was initially rejected as it was felt there would not be enough disabled riders there. Serving south and central areas of Minneapolis was set aside because a second experimental dial-a-ride service was to start there. That service, led by the nonprofit Model Cities, would serve an array of riders – not just riders with disabilities. (The Model Cities service ended in 1975 due to high costs.) 

Eventually the steering committee decided to serve part of Robbinsdale and North Minneapolis, as well as the Loring Park neighborhood of south Minneapolis. But the service didn’t meet its Christmas 1974 deadline. It took months longer than expected to seek bids and then order vehicles. 

The chosen vehicles would have 10 seats and space for up to three wheelchair users. Vehicles were to have either lifts or ramps. Riders were expected to get from their homes to the curb for pickup. 

The delays in starting the program frustrated people with disabilities. At its 1975 convention at Minneapolis South High School,l the United Handicapped Federation objected to the delays and demanded action. MTC Chairman Doug Kelm promised the group that service would start soon. 

Kelm also noted that MTC had recently lowered bus fares by half for disabled riders. But that too had been controversial. Some blind advocates said they didn’t want special treatment. Other disability advocates said a half-fare was not still too much. 

“Project Mobility” finally started in 1976 and provided several hundred rides to people who otherwise could not use fixed route service in the city of Minneapolis. In 1979, Project Mobility became Metro Mobility and expanded from Minneapolis to St. Paul and surrounding first ring suburbs. 

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org 

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