Change in para-transit system moves to planning stage

KAYLA BREEN/STAFF PHOTOPatti King, a board director for the North Country Center for Independence, advocates for those with disabilities in the community during Monday's Clinton County Legislature Transportation Committee meeting. King said she is upset the county is considering elimination of the para-transit service without having a suitable transit service to replace it.

PLATTSBURGH — The Clinton County Legislature's Transportation Committee gave the go-ahead to create a formal plan to change para-transit service in the City of Plattsburgh.

Clinton County Public Transit currently provides transportation for people with a qualified disability in the form of rides, for those who call in advance, from their door to their destination and back.

Due to rising costs, Clinton County is considering eliminating stand-alone para-transit service in the greater Plattsburgh area. It proposes to switch to a route-deviation system for its fixed city routes, similar to that already used on its fixed rural routes.

That task will fall to Clinton County Planning Technician James Bosley, who runs the county's bus system. After the meeting, he said he hopes to have a draft plan in place for the July meeting of the Transportation Committee.

"There will be additional public engagement," he said.

OPPOSITION

The decision to move forward toward a draft plan came despite concerns from advocates for those with disabilities.

North Country Center for Independence Executive Director Robert Poulin said that agency vigorously opposes the idea but needs to see a written plan before it decides potential legal action.

"This is a serious issue. This is messing around with the Americans with Disabilities Act," he said.

Poulin said it isn't as simple as eliminating a dedicated para-transit system and going to deviation service.

"You need to provide an equivalent service, and it's not as simple as having ADA-accessible vehicles," he said.

North Country Center for Independence board member Patti King said it's not about simply "taking care" of those with disabilities. The intention of legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act was to establish equality of access to services.

"Independence is the key here," she said. "It is essential that you understand we are not concerned about being taken care of. We are concerned about being able to maintain our independence as citizens to come and go just as the rest of you able-bodied men and women do in all of your various ways."

ACCESSIBILITY ISSUES

One issue Poulin sees already is that the fixed routes drop off at many locations that para-transit users visit, but locations such as Consumer Square, Champlain Centre or even the hospital have a large footprint that provides challenges to those with disabilities.

"That's why it is important that when a plan is written and placed on paper that it takes into account all of the equivalent issues, all of the things that para-transit provides to people at this point," he said.

Poulin said eliminating para-transit service is not the answer.

"We are not going away," he said. "We intend to do what we have to, including legal action if it comes to that, but we don't want to do that."

PILOT PROGRAM

Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Timmons said that group was only deciding to see if its members wanted to move toward a written plan.

It would be reviewed to ensure it complies with all regulations before it was put to a vote by the County Legislature, he said.

Even if adopted, Timmons said, it would be a pilot program for probably four to six months to make sure it works.

Bosley said para-transit is a major threat to the overall transit system. It is an inherently inefficient system to run, he said, and its constraints on capacity requirements are putting the entire system at risk.

King asked how they can be concerned about one area of compliance (capacity constraints) and ignoring another (ADA regulations).

Bosley said feedback from the State Department of Transportation indicates their proposal would be in compliance. He said the county's two options are a dedicated para-transit service or the deviation service they propose.

MEETING NEEDS

County Legislator Simon Conroy said the county has looked at options such as an increased budget for public transit or adding smaller vehicles for para-transit service. Those alternatives were not pursued during budget discussions, so the better option was not to cut para-transit but provide it in another fashion.

"I would not be voicing my support for this if I didn't believe .... the Planning Department and the legislature are going to put together a deviated service that is going to meet the people's needs," Conroy said.

County Legislator Christopher Rosenquest said the legislature should be doing more to improve the transit system as a whole, rather than simple stop-gap measures such as this.

"How many more expenses can we cut, especially a service that might be the priciest one but serves the people who need it the most?" he said.

Email Dan Heath:

dheath@pressrepublican.com

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Dan Heath grew up in Rouses Point and graduated from N.C.C.S. in 1978. He received a history degree from the University of Colorado and a journalism degree from SUNY Plattsburgh. Dan lives on Point au Fer in the Town of Champlain.

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