Charging discrimination in access to public transportation, 10 individual users have filed state human rights complaints against Metro Mobility. At a press conference held in St. Paul on February 22, users of the local paratransit service stated that the problems posed by denied trip requests, late rides, and poorly-organized and lengthy trips, are seriously affecting the quality of life for people with disabilities in the Twin Cities.
Lolly Lijewski, advocacy manager at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, stated that the problems have become so severe as to make equal access to public transportation in the Twin Cities “at best, a struggle; at worst, just a dream.”
Those filing the complaints with the Minnesota State Department of Human Rights (DHR) state that the problems with Metro Mobility have gotten worse over the past one to two years. The list of problems cited by the complainants echo the long list of complaints reported in the December 1999 edition of Access Press (“Metro Mobility: Users Unhappy, Possible Violation of Federal Law”). Reported problems include persistent difficulties getting to and from work (sometimes severe enough to result in loss of job), difficulty in keeping volunteer and social commitments, and a general inability to plan and carry out normal life activities that involve transportation, such as shopping or attending church.
“We all have our individual issues with how Metro Mobility is doing things,” said rider David Swanson, one of those filing a complaint. “But we all have one common goal: Grabbing the attention of Metro Mobility and saying ‘There’s a problem.’ And the problem is not the drivers, and it’s not the passengers. It’s the system.” The complainants say that two positive outcomes can be expected as a result of their filings. First of all, they hope that the DHR investigation that is carried out as a result of their charges will validate and provide official documentation of their charges. The larger hope is to “draw attention to this issue and to make the point that this is a significant problem which is making people’s lives difficult,” Lijewski said, adding that “We need the decision-makers to understand how significant the problem is, and we need for them to take action.”
The advocates seeking increased funding for Metro Mobility, up to the level needed to meet the current, and growing, demand.
Official statistics from the Metropolitan Council, the agency in charge of Metro Mobility, state that, at present, about 95 percent of requests for rides are granted. This means that about 125 requests are denied each day in the Twin Cities, a rate that Metro Mobility general manager Dave Jacobsen says has been increasing. Activists say that anecdotal evidence suggests the real denial rate is significantly higher than this, and point out that the aging of the Baby Boomers will push demand much higher in coming years. Planning documents recently released by the Metropolitan Council back up this claim, predicting a 50 percent increase in demand for Metro Mobility service by the year 2020.
In 1999 Metro Mobility provided 992,000 rides, which is 38 percent fewer than the 1.6 million rides provided in 1990. Thus it appears that the number of rides offered is decreasing at the same time that the number of trip denials is increasing. Speakers at the press conference repeatedly stated that the problems basically stem from a lack of funds resulting in shortages of vehicles and drivers. Such shortages are known in the transit business as “capacity constraints.”
Lijewski stated that these capacity constraints put Metro Mobility “out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” pointing out that the law requires a public paratransit system to provide service that is “comparable” to that provided by the regular-route public transit system. Her statement appears to be in accord with a recent ruling by the chief counsel for the Federal Transit Administration, which stated that such capacity constraints are “incompatible with a comparable paratransit system, and the rule will be to prohibit [such constraints].” In other words, the law says that a lack of funding is no excuse for a paratransit system’s service being inferior to a city’s fixed-route service.
In at least three other cities around the country, lawsuits have been filed against paratransit services that have trip denial rates similar to that of the Twin Cities. A suit against the New York City Transit Authority was recently resolved out of court, with the city agreeing to reduce its denial rate from over four percent to one percent.
The complainants in the Twin Cities stress that, at the present time, they are not filing a lawsuit against Metro Mobility and have no plans to do so. They clearly stated that they hope the publicity and documentation provided by the filing of their complaints and subsequent investigations will bring about a negotiated solution to the problem, thus making any possible legal action unnecessary.
When asked about the specifics of what they hoped to accomplish with their complaints, spokesperson Lijewski said that activists hoped to see, first of all, more availability of rides. Lijewski added that they would like to see a better integration of the paratransit system with the regular-route and light-rail transit systems, and the development of “a more thoughtful and concerted long-term plan” to assure that the system can, in the future, adequately serve the needs of people with disabilities in the Twin Cities.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights will consider the complaints and conduct an investigation into the facts of the claims. If the evidence supports the claims of discrimination, the Commissioner of Human Rights will issue a determination that there is “probable cause” to credit the claim of a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. At that point the Department will attempt to help the parties to achieve a settlement, which may be a legal settlement or may be negotiated outside of the courts. The average time that is required for the Department to issue a determination is 10 months.