Devin Fernandez, who is blind, and his dog, Skittles, prepare...

Devin Fernandez, who is blind, and his dog, Skittles, prepare to board a Suffolk transit bus near his West Islip home on Tuesday, May 31, 2016. Suffolk County Accessible Transit service for the disabled has been expanded to nearly everywhere in the county using $5 million in federal and local funds. Credit: James Carbone

Disabled advocates are calling on Suffolk County to get the word out on the recent expansion of its paratransit bus service that can provide door-to-door service for thousands of previously ineligible county residents.

Using a $2.5 million Federal Transit Administration grant secured in October and a matching $2.5 million in local funds, Suffolk, since January, has expanded its Suffolk County Accessible Transit, or SCAT, service to nearly everywhere in the county. Shelter Island, which has no county bus service of any kind, is excluded.

Because of the high cost of providing the paratransit service, previously the county only provided SCAT service to and from locations within a three-quarter-mile radius of a standard Suffolk County Transit bus line — the minimum level of service required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

That meant residents in some communities, particularly on the East End, were cut off from the shared-ride transportation system. Advocates say it provides a vital service for county residents with disabilities that preclude them from using other modes of transportation.

“We had been talking internally in DPW [the Department of Public Works] for a while about what would be the possibility of trying to cover the entire county, and this grant came along,” Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said. “It seemed like too good of a chance to pass up.”

The expansion also, effectively, extends SCAT service into Sundays for all users — a difference that has “tremendously changed the lives of people in Suffolk County,” said Steve Cuozzo, a disabled advocate and SCAT rider who lobbied the county for the expansion.

“It’s huge for the disabled communities,” said Cuozzo, 61, who recently used SCAT on a Sunday to attend a Huntington Town political function at Walt Whitman High School. “I would have never been able to get there.”

While heaping praise on the county for the expansion, disabled advocates have also criticized Suffolk for not doing more to publicize the change. The county in March began sending notices about the expansion to registered SCAT customers and have posted messages on SCAT vehicles, but that does little good for potential customers who are unaware they are now eligible for the service, advocates said.

“This is a big plus for the county. They got this and they deserve the accolades for it. However, they’ve been a little slack in getting the communication out there,” said Devin Fernandez, 59, of West Islip, who is blind and sits on the Suffolk Disabilities Advisory Board. “Some people haven’t heard about it at all, which is sad, because now if people don’t know about it, they don’t use it.”

Fernandez said he was concerned that low ridership could be used to justify discontinuing the expanded service when the grant money runs out. The grant funding is expected to last about two years.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said that, in addition to contacting SCAT’s 15,000 registered users, the county has also reached out to other community organizations and advocacy agencies for the disabled, including the disability advisory board and the Suffolk Independent Living Organizaion (SILO).

“I think we’ve always taken the opportunity, as much as we possibly can, to improve all of our transportation services within Suffolk County, and in particular our SCAT services,” Baird-Streeter said. “That is a commitment from the county and the county executive, and I think this was just another opportunity that we had to be able to improve service for those who are in need.”

Marilyn Tucci, Suffolk Independent Living Organization director of outreach and advocacy,and frequent SCAT user, said the organization has done its part to inform the disabled community about the service change, but agreed Suffolk “could do a better job” of getting the word out on its own.

Tucci credited disabled advocates for spurring the county expansion. She was among a group of about 50 disabled county residents who rallied at an August meeting of the county legislature in Hauppauge, urging lawmakers to expand the paratransit system, which provides some 580,000 rides each year.

The next major challenge, Tucci said, is to secure evening service on SCAT, which only runs until 8:30 p.m. She is encouraging members of the disabled community to raise the issue at a June 13 meeting of the county legislature.

“Does your car not run when you put the key in it past 8:30? My life still goes on after 8:30, but I can’t go anywhere,” said Tucci, who is blind. “It’s almost like you’re punished for having a disability.”

Meanwhile, Nassau County’s paratransit service, Able-Ride, still only serves riders within a half-mile radius of a fixed bus route — a limitation that cuts off many northeastern Nassau communities, including Syosset, from the service.

Michael Setzer, chief executive officer of the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, which includes Able-Ride, said opportunities for federal grants to fund an expansion of the system are “worth exploring. And we’ll continue to encourage the county to explore it.”

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