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Pressure put on CTA to improve service for handicapped riders

May 19, 2009 – Disabled advocates pressured the Chicago Transit Authority president on Monday for more accountability and transparency with its service and maintenance of accessibility-related equipment.

The board meeting was a first time CTA President Richard L. Rodriguez met with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Advisory Committee since his appointment two months ago. He fielded questions from board members and advocates in the audience about problems documented in a ChicagoTalks investigation published last week.

“There have been a lot of issues over the years where CTA has fallen short of what should be really high standards for making its services accessible,” said Kevin Irvine, ADA advisory chairman.

Over a two-week period, a team of students from Columbia College Chicago found that 41 percent of the CTA’s stations designated as fully accessible were in fact not. And several of those stops remained inaccessible weeks later on subsequent visits. The team also reviewed the roughly 2,000 ADA-related complaints filed against the CTA over the last five years, finding repeated problems with bus lifts, rude CTA employees and guide dogs not being allowed to accompany their disabled owners, among other things.

Irvine said the committee wants to see from CTA’s leadership that accessibility is “critically important” and “shared vision of what accessibility means.”

Rodriguez, a former commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, spoke about his experience with ensuring accessibility at Chicago’s airports and said his commitment to dealing with disability related-issues hasn’t changed, “not one bit.”

Acknowledging the budget woes facing the CTA, Irvine said there are many issues, such as stop announcements by train operators, correctly updated elevator status boards, and equipment repair status, that CTA could resolve at no cost.

“These are small examples that add up to a lot and that really affect people with disabilities when they are out there trying to buy passes, riding on the ‘L’, riding the buses and things like that,” said Irvine. “I think that some of it is common sense, some of it is getting people information.”

Rodriguez said the CTA tracks performance of its 134 elevators and in twice-weekly staff meetings statistics are provided on the status of working and malfunctioning elevators.

But budget and time constraints limit repair time.

Last week, the CTA announced it was dealing with a $155 million shortfall this year, which will delay upgrades to some of the 56 train stations that are not accessible.

“Given the resources, both human resources and material resources that we have,” said Rodriguez, “are we able to fix an elevator in what the public would define as a reasonable period of time at this point? What is a reasonable period of time?”

Rodriguez offered an apology for “any inadequate service,” but it was the behavior of CTA employees that several committee members and people in the audience, pushed the new president to address. They urged him to improve the way employees interact with customers as well as do more training and be more responsive to complaints.

Rodriguez said it is a “management issue” if employees are not notifying the CTA of malfunctions and other issues. But he said he didn’t want to create a “gotcha” environment amongst his employees when asked to implement system that would monitor their performance.

According to an internal monthly performance management report, elevators were in service 98.1 percent of the time from Jan. 1 through March 31, 2009, while 93 ADA-related complaints were filed. Twenty-eight percent were related to elevators, 25 percent involved buses failing to stop for disabled customers and 20 percent had to do with general ADA compliance. Twenty-seven percent were related to other and rude operators.

Henry T. Chandler, Jr., a member of both the CTA board and the Access Living board, said he has “serious trouble” with the mass transit system’s compliance but is hopeful Rodriguez will familiarize himself with the access-related issues and improve the system.

“I think if they look at the process that was in place during the last compliance period (2000 lawsuit), and take some cues from that,” said Chandler. “I think the desire is there on his [Rodriguez] part and CTA’s part, in general.”

Chandler believes ADA-related issues fell “to the wayside” due to past capital funding woes and state political turmoil in recent years.

Irvine said after the meeting that customers need to be able to access internal CTA information about faulty equipments and know the reasons why the breakdowns are occurring. Such transparency would send a better message to both its able and disabled customers.

“And if there’s no explanation for why it’s not working people just assume that CTA doesn’t care, ” said Irvine.

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