Disabled Cry Foul Over Cuts

Posted By RONALD ZAJAC , STAFFWRITER
April 24, 2010

Like many people who depend on Brockville’s para transit system, Mary Ann Greenwood worries it will soon be harder to get a ride.

Greenwood, whose son, Paul Murrell, 31, has tuberous sclerosis and requires a wheelchair to get around, has already had to reduce the number of times she uses para transit. She worries those opportunities will decrease even more when the city’s new para transit contract takes effect May 1, effectively reducing the number of available buses from a maximum of four to two.

“I know from what I’m doing now that I’m having problems, so what’s it going to be like when it’s cut in half?” asked Greenwood.

City officials say they are confident the new system will be able to ensure everyone who needs a ride can get one -as long as they book it at least a day
in advance.

Members of city council were less certain earlier this week, when the operations committee requested a report from staff on the matter and wondered whether this was a setback for people with disabilities.

Last month, council approved a new five-year contract with its longtime para transit service provider, Synfast Corporation, at a cost of $278,071 a year.

The new deal no longer requires Synfast to use its own buses.

Rather, the company is to use the three para transit buses the city bought for itself in 2009, entirely with money it obtained from the provincial gas tax
fund.

Under the new system, Synfast will use two of the city buses, with the third used as a backup, said city operations director Conal Cosgrove.

Using city-owned buses makes all the difference, since under the old contract, Synfast has been, at times, using all four of its buses in the city.

Synfast has two buses for the Brockville contract, but the firm also has contracts with other parties, and when one or both of its two other buses have
not been needed for those other contracts, they have been put to use in Brockville to augment the service here, said Cosgrove.

Under the new deal, Synfast is only permitted to use the two Brockville-owned buses in Brockville, said Cosgrove.

But that also means the city won’t be paying Synfast to pull in its other buses, leaving only two para transit buses running in Brockville at any given
time.

Greenwood, who lives near the Brockville and Area YMCA where her son is getting physiotherapy, said Murrell had been using para transit as often as five times a week, but even under the current system, that had to be reduced to three times a week.

Greenwood must ride along with Murrell in the bus because of the severity of his disability. She is worried things will get even tighter in May.

“It’ll be harder to get,” said Greenwood, who stressed she was speaking as a parent rather than a member of the Brockville Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee (BMAAC).

BMAAC chairman Ryan Billing said other para transit users have also been sharing their concerns about the coming changes.

In his job as an employment developer at Career Services of Brockville, Billing has received calls from Synfast asking if, in anticipation of the new system, some clients might be able to get to their workplace earlier.

“We’re certainly concerned about the level of service now. Will it be hindered?” questioned Billing.

The system does not take into account issues that require a sudden trip as opposed to a concrete booking time, said Billing.

“We don’t live in a concrete world.”

Some users could end up riding con-v e nt i o na l city buses, which are equipped with lifts, said Billing.

“That’s an option that we hope people can pursue, (but) that’s also going to have an impact on the conventional system.”

Para transit wait times could become longer, including for return trips, but the new system should also prompt users to ask themselves when they truly need a ride, said Billing.

“It’s going to be a lot more onerous on the users to manage it better,” he said.

Cosgrove said Synfast’s owner and operator, Dean Humble, has been very accommodating to people who do not book rides at least 24 hours ahead as the policy requires.

“He didn’t like to say ‘No’ to anybody.”

However, under the new two-bus system -in which the city will also cover fuel and maintenance costs for the vehicles -the 24-hour rule will become a lot
more strict.

“If you call less than 24 hours, then there’s no guarantee that we can give you a ride at the time that you’re looking for.”

If people do give at least 24 hours notice, said Cosgrove, they will get a booking.

“We believe that two buses should be able to provide the service that we need to provide,” said Cosgrove.

“I guess we’re going to find out what the difference is going to be.”

Even with the extra fuel and maintenance costs, the city is expected to pay less for para transit than under the previous system, said Cosgrove.

Humble told the Recorder and Times his company has been calling some users to ask them to change their times, although the difference is in the 15- minute range.

But he declined to comment at length until the new system is running.

“We’ll cope with it, somehow,” he said.

The para transit system averages about 1,500 to 1,800 rides per month, said Humble.

“They’ll (riders) have to be flexible,” he said. “Customers are pretty good. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

At their meeting on Wednesday, members of council’s operations committee asked staff for a report on the matter after Councillor Louise Severson, council’s BMAAC representative, relayed the group’s concerns.

Severson admitted she did not expect service to be reduced when she voted in favour of the contract.

“I didn’t realize we were cutting at the time. I made a mistake,” said Severson.

“People with accessibility issues have now taken a step back, in my mind.”

Noble, who called for the staff report, said he was also not aware service was being reduced.

“I have no problem bringing this back for reconsideration,” he said.

When told a previous report merely said Synfast “will modify the level of service,” Severson was not reassured.

“Common sense tells me: you take away one (bus), it’s not going to get better,” she said.

Billing said BMAAC is drafting a letter to the city asking for a meeting with all parties concerned.

Greenwood also plans to press the issue at the BMAAC level, for her son’s sake.

“That’s one reason I’m on BMAAC, to improve Brockville for him and people like him,” she said.

ronz@recorder.ca

Article ID# 2548814

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