The "Time is Ripe" for Transit Change

Improving Minnesota transit was the agenda at a forum last month sponsored by two key disability organizations. On November 7, 2007, the Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD) partnered with Pathways to Employment (PTE) to present a forum entitled, “The Long Road to Work: A Transportation and Employment Dialogue.” The day was designed to facilitate discussion as well as stimulate and share innovative strategies to address the transportation needs of Minnesotans with disabilities. Particular attention was put on role of transportation in enabling people with disabilities to find and maintain employment.

The morning’s keynote speaker was Karen Hoesch, Executive Director of ACCESS Transportation Systems, operators of a paratransit brokerage system in Pittsburgh. Hoesch’s message was clear – human service agencies, community-based organizations, providers and employers must cooperate to serve more people, provide more service, and utilize existing capacity and resources effectively to meet the transportation needs of persons with disabilities.

Hoesch identified opportunities for transportation improvement and provided examples from Pennsylvania. In one case, funding from federal, county and community sources allowed for the creation of an employment-based transportation service called Work Link in Pennsylvania. The service offers local connections, links to several transit routes at multiple stops, and child care drop-off. It provides 5,000 rides each month, 80% of which are for work. Long-time advocate and transit user Lolly Lijewski commented on what she took away from Hoesch’s message, stating, “We need to flip the paradigm. Instead of thinking of ourselves as people with disabilities who need a ride in order to work, we are workers who happen to have disabilities and who need a ride.”

During a breakout session, Joel Ulland and John Tschida, current and former co-chairs of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, discussed the public policy context surrounding accessible transportation in Minnesota. They outlined a vision for Metro Mobility service, including expanding service to all of Minnesota’s 87 counties and increasing service hours to a minimum of 14 hours each day, all by 2010.

In the afternoon, Bob Olsgard, of North Country Independent Living, detailed his work to increase transportation services in rural Washburn County, Wisconsin. Nearly 40% of the population is comprised of persons with disabilities and those 65 years and older. In 2005, Olsgard and his colleagues conducted community assessments; from 1900 surveys they found that sufficient seat capacity existed, but that much of that capacity was only available to “eligible” consumers. The group also found inconsistent driver training programs and qualification checks, and that most services were limited to weekday hours between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.

MSCOD and PTE intend for the dialogue to serve as a springboard for creative problem-solving, collaboration, and action, and will follow up with additional communication to move forward on improving transportation for persons with disabilities. As Lijewski states, “The time is ripe for change in the area of transit. An aging population, a shrinking workforce and increasing employment of people with disabilities are going to be drivers in making change happen.”