The Regional Transportation Authority is expected to get an earful Wednesday from transit riders with disabilities who say they are angry and offended because of comments by agency Chairman John S. Gates Jr. characterizing paratransit as a "limousine" service.
Gates told the Daily Herald editorial board Oct. 4 that paratransit is "a limousine service, but it's a federally mandated limousine service that we have to provide. It's hugely expensive, but it's something we have to do. It's the law. It's a civil right."
Paratransit rider Ray Campbell of Glen Ellyn said it was anything but a limousine service.
"For one thing, it is a shared ride service, trips in limos are usually not," Campbell said.
"Often, it can take much longer to get from Point A to Point B on paratransit than in a limo, taxi or private car because more than one person is using that vehicle to get around," added Campbell, who is visually impaired.
Gates has received numerous complaints from riders with disabilities and was expected to offer an explanation and an apology, RTA deputy executive communication director Diane Palmer said Tuesday.
"He will directly address it and (say) he used a very inappropriate analogy," Palmer said. She added that Gates had reached out to members of the RTA's (Americans With Disabilities Act) ADA advisory committee and realized that paratransit is a "lifeline" allowing people with disabilities to be independent.
Former RTA ADA committee member Jim Watkins, who uses a wheelchair, said Gates needed to educate himself on paratransit issues.
"To refer to paratransit as a 'limousine service' shows a complete lack of understanding of what paratransit actually is ... we still have people in vehicles for longer than they should be on a daily basis," Watkins said in an email.
Pace provides paratransit to riders in both Chicago and the suburbs. Rides cost $3 a trip and the preliminary budget for the program is set at $136 million for 2013.
Gates delved into paratransit Oct. 4 as he was explaining how the transit pie is divided with 56 percent going to the CTA, 32 percent to Metra and 12 percent to Pace. But first, paratransit is funded.
"It's a civil right. It has to come right off the top," Gates said. "You send out a van every time somebody schedules one. The more volume you have, the more money you lose.
"It's not like other systems ... where the more volume you have, the more money you make or the less money you lose. That's the issue, and as the population ages and gets more infirm, the volumes go up faster than the rest of the system," Gates explained.
"Many people with disabilities use paratransit in order to go to and from work, so they can be taxpaying members of society, not dependent on others to live. They also go to school, local government programs and services, community activities, shopping, to visit family and friends and, yes, to medical appointments using this service. People with disabilities are not sick -- we just have to do things differently in some cases because of a disability," Campbell said.