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Nassau lawmakers seek to expand bus routes for disabled

An Able-Ride bus transports a patient from a

An Able-Ride bus transports a patient from a medical facilty in Island Park. Photo Credit: Jim Staubitser, 2012

A pair of Nassau legislators, outraged that three blind bus riders were recently dropped off more than a mile from where they were going, are calling for changes to a federal law governing where paratransit vehicles can go.

Legis. Judith Jacobs (D-Woodbury) and Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove) last week wrote a letter to the Federal Transit Authority, asking the agency to reconsider a law that requires paratransit systems, such as Nassau's Able-Ride, to pick up and drop passengers only within a three-quarter-mile radius of a fixed bus route.

That restriction recently resulted in a group of blind Able-Ride customers having to be dropped off 1 1/2 miles from their final destination -- the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, where they were invited to speak.

One of those riders, Steven Couzzo, said that the strict enforcement of the three-quarter-mile rule meant that he had to arrange to have a taxi meet his group, which included a guide dog, at a designated location on the outskirts of that radius.

"That was just as far as they were going," said, Couzzo, 60, of East Northport, who recalled being dropped off outside a senior living facility with no sidewalks. "We stood on the street and we had to wait."

In their letter, Jacobs and DeRiggi-Whitton blamed the "horrendous" three-quarter-mile rule for leaving the blind trio "at the mercy of a private cab service."

"In the interim, these vulnerable individuals were stranded," the lawmakers wrote. "That is simply unacceptable from a humanitarian point of view."

Jacobs and DeRiggi-Whitton asked FTA acting Administrator Therese McMillan to consider changing Americans with Disabilities Act regulations to allow paratransit users to be picked up and dropped at locations outside of a main bus line service area. "It is the humane thing to do," they wrote.

The FTA did not respond to a request for comment.

United Spinal Association president and chief operating officer James Weisman, who helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act 25 years ago, said the law merely sets a minimum requirement for paratransit service areas.

"When the ADA was written, it was supposed to be the floor -- not the ceiling," Weisman said. "A locality can opt to provide paratransit to anyone it wants, at any time it wants, anywhere it wants. And that's what [Nassau] County did until [County Executive Edward] Mangano got elected."

Until 2010, Able-Ride did offer door-to-door service anywhere in Nassau. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operated Able-Ride until 2012, began strictly enforcing the three-quarter-mile radius because, it said, Nassau was not adequately funding its bus system. The change cut off most communities in northeast Nassau from Able-Ride.

The privately run Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, which took over Able-Ride from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said while it has discussed "creative solutions" with Jacobs, going back to providing paratransit service to all of Nassau without more funding would require "severely cutting fixed route service."

Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said the county executive "shares the concerns expressed by advocates and the legislators."

"The administration contacted the operator -- whose contract was unanimously approved by the legislature with this level of service -- and the operator advises us that door-to-door service would cost taxpayers an additional $10 million annually," Nevin said.

Jacobs said she hoped the letter, also sent to state and federal lawmakers, could spark more funding to restore paratransit throughout Nassau.

"I don't believe that anyone had it as their initial goal that people would be left without Able-Ride in a quarter of the county," Jacobs said. "It just seems so cruel."

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