Lawmaker calls for transparency on accessibility issues, CTA defends repair efforts

May 15, 2009 – A key state lawmaker said Thursday the Chicago Transit Authority should conduct internal performance audits and hold its managers accountable in the wake of a ChicagoTalks investigation that found more than one-third of the system’s accessible stations were not fully available to customers over a two-week period in February.

A team of reporters from Columbia College Chicago found multiple equipment breakdowns among 41 percent of stations designated handicap accessible.

“It’s a huge problem for many of the transit riders who depend on transit to be able to live,” said Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), chairwoman of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee. “And it’s a further problem for me as a policy maker because if the main line system isn’t working well for people with disabilities, then they would be in a position to have to resort to Paratransit services, which are more costlier.”

CTA Chairwoman Carole Brown said Wednesday that elevators do break down but the CTA tries to address problems “as quickly and as soon as we can.”

Brown said accessibility was a “major goal” of the agency, citing recent Brown Line renovations. However, Brown said a lack of capital funding makes it hard for the CTA to make more stations accessible. Sixty-one percent of the 144 “L” stations are accessible. The CTA says by the end of this year, 93 of its stations – or 65 percent – will be accessible.

“We’re always having to make hard decisions about where we deploy those capital dollars,” said Brown. “If we had money, of course, that would be one of our top priorities.”

CTA announced Wednesday it is facing a $155 million shortfall this year despite showing a recent growth in its number of riders.

CTA president Richard Rodriguez said the agency could not rule out future fare increase or service cuts, adding the agency is looking “aggressively” to see where they can “reduce and tighten belts.”

Brown and Rodriguez said CTA would not be able to purchase new buses and make improvements to CTA infrastructure because of the shortfall.

“We have garages that are basically in a condition that our employees should not be working in,” said Rodriguez. “Not to say they are not safe but for goodness they’re over a 100 years old…and those are types of investments we have to forgo to continue plugging our operating budget.”

This reduction could include delay bus purchases and rail station upgrades that would make more stops accessible to the estimated 600,000 disabled Chicagoans.

After weeks of declining to comment on ChicagoTalks’ findings, the CTA responded Thursday to written questions.

“With a system as expansive as CTA’s, there are thousands of pieces of equipment that need to be maintained,” wrote Shelia Gregory, general manager of public affairs.

Gregory said the system’s 132 elevators were in service “more than 96 percent of the time,” and she noted the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require repairs be made in a specific time frame.

“Unfortunately, some of the mechanical repairs take longer to resolve than others,” Gregory said in a written statement. “The CTA makes a reasonable effort to ensure elevators are working properly at each of the accessible stations.”

Of the three elevators found to be out of service in the ChicagoTalks investigation, Gregory said the CTA is not responsible for the Midway/ Skybridge on the Orange Line. She noted that it took seven days to for the Harlem station to be repaired and two days for the Montrose stop to be fixed. The CTA did not provide details about how long it took for broken automatic doors at several other stations to be repaired. But Gregory wrote that broken turnstiles aren’t a problem because a disabled customer could simply ask a CTA employee for help.

As for discourteous employees, Gregory wrote: “Rudeness demonstrated by a bus or a rail operator, or a customer assistant toward any customer is not acceptable. Disciplinary action is taken when appropriate for employees who are rude to customers, but CTA must be notified. Riders need to e-mail or call CTA immediately. The more information that a customer can provide, the easier it is to identify the individual and take the proper action.”

The CTA did not say whether any employees were disciplined in the instances of rude behavior detailed in the investigation.

Rep. Hamos said the CTA should realize that disable riders are a “significant portion of its ridership” and has an obligation to them.

“The fact that you did this survey is a public service to them,” said Hamos. “I think at the minimum they ought have been more responsive to you and thanked you for alerting them to some problems they were having.”

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