You might call it "Long Island Bus: The Car."
In an effort to cut costs, MTA Long Island Bus plans to replace at least half of its fleet of wheelchair-lift-equipped paratransit buses with cars over the next several years - potentially squeezing up to three disabled riders into the backseat of a full-sized sedan, officials said.
The Ford Crown Victorias are the same models frequently used by police departments and cab companies. The bus company rolled out its first four cars - decorated with the MTA logo on the side - on Friday. Bus officials have said they may eventually have to use different cars because Ford is phasing out production of the Crown Victoria.
Long Island Bus' paratransit service, known as "Able-Ride," provides handicapped-accessible transportation to customers who cannot use other transit services. Riders call at least 24 hours in advance to schedule a ride, and are picked up.
"We found that having 100 percent wheelchair-lift-equipped vehicles wasn't really necessary," said Tom Charles, vice president of paratransit services for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "Economically, it was a good idea for us to say, 'Well, let's have some of the fleet be sedans.' "
Charles said only about 25 percent of Able-Ride's customers use wheelchairs. That means the company could replace up to half of its fleet of 93 vehicles with cars, and still be able to meet the needs of wheelchair users.
Using a car rather than a bus to transport other disabled riders could potentially save millions of dollars in vehicle costs, fuel and maintenance, said Charles. He said a paratransit bus costs about $100,000 to purchase, while a car costs $22,000.
Charles said a similar program was put in place in New York City's "Access-a-Ride" system, and feedback has been largely positive.
But accessible-transit advocate Jean Ryan, of Bay Ridge, said replacing buses with cars has some drawbacks. Ryan, who requires a wheelchair-lift-equipped vehicle, said that more than once a sedan was mistakenly sent to her home.
Other times, when she has been able to ride in a sedan, Ryan said it's been a tight fit. "Sometimes, we'd really be packed in - especially if someone was really big," said Ryan.
But Ryan, and other disabled advocates, said the move was worthwhile, as paratransit buses are frequently operated nearly empty, but for one or two passengers who do not use wheelchairs. "It's very expensive, and a lot of times I've been on a ride, and I'm the only one on," said paratransit user Robert Schoenfeld, 68, of East Meadow, an executive member of Manhattan-based advocacy group Disabled in Action. "It's an extremely good idea."
Barbara Lee, 67, of Long Beach, agreed that it is wasteful to operate nearly empty paratransit buses, but wondered if small vehicles like the Crown Victoria were the best alternative. "I don't know how many people they're going to serve that way," said Lee, a wheelchair user and longtime "Able-Ride" customer. She said even non-wheelchair-using paratransit customers might struggle with the cars. "Very few people who use paratransit could use a cab."
Charles said that while some customers might "feel too congested," the drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits, which include the sedans' ability to drive on parkways.
Long Island Bus spokesman Jerry Mikorenda said the first customers to use the cars "really liked" them.