Regional Transportation Authority Chairman John S. Gates Jr. apologized Wednesday for remarks about paratransit that offended disabled riders, including calling it a "limousine service."
"I completely misspoke and I apologize," Gates said. "My comments were inappropriate and unfortunately could be misconstrued to suggest bias against the disabled community. Nothing could be further from the truth.
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"Paratransit is a civil right for the approximately 50,000 people who are currently certified to use it in our region. It affords riders mobility and independence."
Paratransit riders spoke out during the RTA's Wednesday board meeting, calling Gates' words hurtful and uninformed.
Glen Ellyn resident and paratransit user Ray Campbell thanked Gates for his apology but said he still would have preferred that the chairman resign. However, he added "I would be happy to work with you and help you be part of a dialogue" on improving paratransit along with making mainline bus and train service more accessible to riders with disabilities.
"Paratransit is a lifeline. Many of us use it to get to work and school, participate in our communities, visit family and friends, and get to medical appointments," said Campbell who is visually impaired.
Gates' comments were reported Oct. 15 in the Daily Herald following an editorial board session, intended to discuss a funding battle between the CTA, Metra and Pace.
"Oct. 15 is a date that will live in infamy for all of us who live in the six-county region," said Marcia Trawinski, a visually impaired Chicagoan who uses paratransit.
"The fact is I have waited over an hour beyond my window for pickup times. I've been driven around the city in what we fondly call 'hostage trips,' because we are victims of poor scheduling," she added.
In speaking with the Daily Herald, Gates explained that the CTA gets 56 percent of sales tax revenues that help pay for transit, Metra receives 32 percent and Pace gets 12 percent.
He noted that paratransit, the ride service for people with disabilities, is funded first, before the other agencies.
"It's a civil right. It has to come right off the top," Gates told the editorial board. "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 previously.
"It's a limousine service, but it's a federally mandated limousine service that we have to provide," he added. "The farebox pays 10 percent, we lose a ton of money. ... It's hugely expensive, but it's something we have to do. It's the law. It's a civil right."
Trawinski and others objected to the use of the word "infirm."
"We are veterans, we are your relatives on dialysis ... we are people trying to find our future and our life with its independence," Trawinski said.
"No word is more derogatory and nasty," said Jim Watkins, former chairperson of the RTA's ADA Advisory Committee. "But we have to go forward. Within the RTA, I would like to see a disability awareness program put in place."
Gates said Wednesday he was particularly sensitive of disability issues because his father is blind. He asked riders for "a dialogue on how we can focus on paratransit and fixed route service delivery and funding that meets the needs of all of our customers.
"The RTA enthusiastically supports this service with more than $140 million dollars per year. Paratransit may not be perfect, but it is far more fully funded than CTA, Metra or Pace bus."
Disabled advocates said they would wait and see if RTA leaders improved communication with riders.
"He did the right thing by apologizing," Campbell said. "We'll see where we go from here."