Kearns Champions Change for Riders of Public Transit and Paratransit

“Listen to and partner with the people with disabilities as equals. They know what they need and have solutions to offer.” 

“I work at Amazon and in the winter I have to wait an hour in the snow for buses. If they do not come, I will have to pay for an Uber, which is expensive. Bus drivers will often see me waiting at a stop and leave me behind.” 

“More public transportation is needed in Springville. Jobs at People Inc. go unfilled because people can’t get there.” 

“My friends who must use the NFTA’s Paratransit service can’t rely on it for anything – Doctor appointments, work, etc. And then the lack of snow removal on sidewalks and at bus stops makes it impossible for them to get to an accessible location.” 

Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns addresses the audience and media during a press conference in the Dr. Eva Doyle Auditorium at the Merriweather Library on Jefferson Ave. on December 5 to announce results of its year-long “Rate your Ride” survey…

These (the comments posted above) are just a few of the 730 public comments collected from more than 2,300 respondents to the “Rate your Ride” survey, distributed over the past year by the office of Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and the Western New York Law Center, with survey analysis by students from Columbia Law School’s Lawyer in in the Digital Age Clinic.

If you use public transportation in Western New York, you may have been approached over the year to complete a “Rate your Ride” survey, which asked NFTA riders to evaluate and document their experiences using both public transit and paratransit. The individual responses and comments from the public were compiled and analyzed by Columbia University Law students Jean Choi and Brandon Rosenberg under the leadership of Clinical Professor of Law Conrad A. Johnson.  Their findings were released on December 5 during a press conference at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library’s Dr. Eva M. Doyle Auditorium, hosted by Kearns and the WNY Law Center. 

Columbia University Law student Jean Choi presented the report along with fellow student Brandon Rosenberg

As the Columbia Law students presented their findings, they noted the data found a considerable amount of dissatisfaction with NFTA services, which is a matter of concern for Kearns because his office provides a significant amount of funding to the NFTA. Additionally, the disability community, who rely on paratransit for essential transportation, has been speaking to Kearns about their concerns since he introduced a bill in 2014 as a New York State Assemblymember to increase the distances that paratransit services can travel beyond a bus stop.

Notably, a considerable number of survey respondents voiced their concern and frustration about a lack of adequate public transportation that exists for inner city residents to reach jobs in the suburbs. Dr. Carolyn Storms-Stoltman, Vice President of Enrollment & Organizational Advancement at the Northland Workforce Training Center, said, “These locations can be particularly difficult to reach without a car. This drastically cuts workers options for employment, as manufacturing and energy jobs have been historically located outside of public transportation.” 

“Every data point is a person,” Kearns said. “There’s a direct bus line to the Bills’ home games this season, but not a direct line from Jefferson Ave. to GEICO or other workplaces in the suburbs. Our goal of doing this survey was not from a confrontational standpoint, but from a collaborative one. There does not appear to be any urgency from the NFTA to address these issues.” 

“If these problems or concerns were happening at the airport, they would be fixed right away,” Kearns added. “The NFTA is a public entity and cannot look the other way. At some point there has to be accountability.” 

Immediately after the press conference Kearns and the WNY Law Center’s interim executive director Paulette Campbell signed a letter to the NFTA’s executive director and copied its 11 Board of Commissioners, the members of the Buffalo Common Council, and the Erie and Niagara County Legislature. Included in an envelope with the letter was a copy of the report and a written request to hold a brainstorming meeting to discuss its results.  

On December 13, the report was also presented to key staff members of New York State Senator Timothy Kennedy and chair of the Senate’s Transportation Committee. Kennedy has been a strong advocate for public transportation and was instrumental in securing a $750,000 grant last year to study the expansion of paratransit services.

Speaking to Adam Fogel, Sen. Kennedy’s Chief of Staff and Rick Rodgers, the senator’s Legislative and Transportation Committee Director, Professor Conrad Johnson questioned the strength of previous surveys administered by the NFTA and said, “There’s nothing in their survey results that tell you anything helpful. No number of respondents, methodology, and no correlation between income, disability, and race.” 

On December 18, Kearns received a response from the NFTA’s executive director and chair of its board but it did not suggest a meeting with Kearns and his team to brainstorm solutions from the survey respondents. Kearns is hoping his request for a meeting is responded to soon.

Todd Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy at WNY Independent Living, said, “This reports highlights the NFTA success needs to be based on more than just on time performance.  I look forward to joining Clerk Kearns in an upcoming meeting with NFTA officials to create workable, immediate solutions for all who use public transportation.

As one survey respondent said, “It is easy to criticize the public transportation experience – it is much harder to work together to improve the experience, but that is what must be done to address these concerns.”

Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

The post Kearns Champions Change for Riders of Public Transit and Paratransit appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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