The Ottumwa Courier

November 3, 2012

Possible changes in rules on who can use wheelchair bus

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Residents with recognized disabilities can pay for bus service right to their door. But just because they qualify for disabled services now doesn’t mean they’ll qualify after Christmas.

“They’ll have to be certified,” said Joni Keith, the Ottumwa city attorney who helps oversee the Ottumwa Transit Department.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has rules about who can and cannot make use of the special OT lift van, sometimes called a paratransit bus. Though all Ottumwa city buses are able to be accessed by people with disabilities, the “wheelchair lift” equipped van was specifically designed for riders with mobility impairments.

Yet not everyone with a disability will qualify for paratransit under the newly adopted rules.

“Paratransit is going to be for those people who cannot ride fixed routes,” Keith said.

So someone in a wheelchair who can head down the sidewalk to the bus stop would not qualify to use the paratransit bus. Space would be made available for a passenger who cannot get to a bus stop. However, no firm decisions have been made on what the exact qualifications will be.

Keith said the city is simply working hard to follow state and federal rules.

Last year, government investigators alleged that the former OTA bus service had violated multiple regulations. After a shakeup at the agency, Keith, other high-ranking city officials, the board and new transit director Diane Gawronski began a steady battle to rebuild the reputation and finances of the newly named Ottumwa Transit.

Keith said that they’ve made progress on that front, but they must still do things right. Their next step will relate to paratransit.

“We’re putting together our certification process, and we’re also revising the qualifications,” Keith said.  “Passengers have to be certified. And they’ll need to be recertified annually.”

They also need to make sure they’re not turning too many people away. Right now, there are only so many rides the single lift van can offer in a day. The van is much smaller than the typical bus. There are other differences, too.

On the plus side, transit dispatchers said the lift van will meet the passenger at the curb of their home and drop them off at the curb of their destination. Drivers can help passengers on or off the van but are not allowed to help passengers make it from their home to the curb or from the curb to their destination. So someone who had difficulty negotiating steps to get to the sidewalk in front of their home would have to have assistance lined up to help.

And unlike a regular route bus, passengers must usually call a day ahead of time to request lift van service. Regular riders told the Courier they like the service, but say there are busy days when the one lift van cannot fill all the need. If a passenger’s doctor appointment is at 11 a.m., the van may not be available for a 10 a.m. ride. Some days, it may not even be available for a 9 a.m. pickup.  

But normally, one disabled passenger said, it’s a blessing to have a ride available.

The fare is $2.50 in each direction, and the trip will possibly have other riders — meaning pick up and drop off times may need to be adjusted a bit.

With just one van, schedulers and drivers have to keep another important factor in mind: For every passenger they bring somewhere, they’re probably going to have to have enough room, as well as time, to go get them and take them home.

“We’re looking at the possibility of getting a used paratransit bus,” Robert LaPoint, chairman of the Ottumwa Transit advisory board, told the Courier. “But not right away.”

“We want to get the right bus for the right price,” explained Keith. “Used but with a lot of miles left on it. We’re looking.”