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Extended hours urged to serve disabled transit riders in Suffolk

Bernard Ferracane, left, helps Victor Neisch, back to

Bernard Ferracane, left, helps Victor Neisch, back to his seat after he addressed the Suffolk County legislature in Hauppauge Monday on Aug. 31, 2015. Neisch, who is blind, was one of a group of riders who called for additional transportation service. Credit: James Carbone

Several disabled bus riders urged Suffolk lawmakers Monday to expand transit services for those who, they say, need it most.

More than 50 disabled Suffolk residents and advocates turned out at a meeting of the county legislature's public works, transportation and energy subcommittee to support expanded evening and Sunday hours on Suffolk County Accessible Transportation, or SCAT, which provides some 580,000 rides each year.

The federally mandated paratransit service provides door-to-door transportation for eligible riders, but only during the same hours that standard, fixed-route bus lines operate. Because most lines do not operate after 8:30 p.m. or on Sundays, the disabled riders say their mobility during those times is severely limited.

The disabled riders -- many of them blind -- spoke of not having been able to worship at their churches for years, being unable to work nights and having to forgo their social lives. Some had to leave before making their planned comments because their reserved SCAT vehicle was waiting outside.

"We're human beings. We have every right that you have to want to go someplace," said SCAT rider Marilyn Tucci, who is blind and who works as the advocacy and outreach coordinator for the Suffolk Independent Living Organization. "We pay taxes. We buy things. We want to enjoy things."

The disabled riders wore bright yellow shirts with the message "We vote" and delayed the start of the subcommittee's agenda by 2 1/2 hours with their comments. "There are many, many more of us," Tammy McLaughlin, of Coram, told the legislators.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) said that while she appreciated the riders' passion, she thought it would be better directed at state and federal lawmakers, who decide how much transit funding Suffolk gets each year.

"Go put the pressure on them. . . . They're the ones who can say, 'Hey, we need more money in Suffolk County,' " Browning said.

Suffolk transportation director Garry Lenberger noted that fully $25 million of Suffolk County Transit's $70 million budget is dedicated to SCAT, and that each paratransit trip costs the county $42. He said that the county is planning several improvements for disabled riders, including an online reservation system and a GPS-based vehicle tracking system that will allow users to know when their ride will arrive.

But, Lenberger said, expanding service just an additional 90 minutes on weekdays to 10 p.m. could cost the county an additional $400,000 a year.

Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said the county should push state representatives for the money needed to keep SCAT running through midnight. He said Suffolk receives $24 million a year in transit aid from the state, compared with $65 million for Nassau.

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