Wednesday, June 22, 2016
On Sundays, Dr. Scott Crawford rides his power wheelchair down Meadowbrook Road to church, usually in the road and against the flow of traffic.
The city's public-transit service, JATRAN, does not run on Sundays, and, as of June 20, the service is running without six of its routes due to vehicle maintenance on 13 buses in the fleet. National Express, the company that manages maintenance on the buses, stated in a release that the routes will return as soon as vehicles become available.
This puts disabled residents in a difficult position, because every day can soon come to look just like Sunday without public transit: a long ride on a dangerous road.
Occasionally, a police patrol vehicle tries to warn Crawford and guide him back onto the sidewalk, which has utility poles placed periodically smack-dab in the middle of the walkway and no ramps to allow for wheelchair-to-sidewalk access.
"It happened about six weeks ago, when I was trying to go to church," Crawford said during an interview at his home on June 15 of the police intervention.
"There's no JATRAN on Sunday, at all, nothing. So therefore there is no paratransit. So I ride my chair."
Even though the public-transit system cannot serve Crawford on Sunday, the sidewalks do him no good if he can't get to them. "There is a sidewalk on Meadowbrook, but it is not accessible," Crawford said. "We never brought it into compliance with ADA when we were supposed to, by 1995."
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a civil-rights bill, dictated anti-discriminatory policies for government and private entities to create accessibility for persons with disabilites. Some roads in Jackson lack the necessary ramps, if they even have sidewalks at all.
Riding a wheelchair in the street, of course, is potentially life-threatening. Smart Growth America, an advocacy group out of Washington, D.C., pushes for long-term civic planning or, as its website states, "works with communities to fight sprawl and save money." In a 2014 report on pedestrian fatalities, "Dangerous by Design 2014," the group reports that in Jackson in the nine years between 2003 and 2012, there were 96 pedestrian deaths, compared to a total of 1,098 traffic deaths.
To Crawford, it is indeed a civil-rights struggle, and one that he compares to the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. "This is my Woolworth counter," Crawford said. "And yeah, I know I could lose my life; they knew they could lose their lives."
When Crawford cannot even reach the sidewalk, he uses the road—to raise awareness of a human-rights issue many people simply ignore.
"They don't get it because they don't see people like me rolling on the street," Crawford said. "And they never will until they see people like me rolling down the street."
To Crawford, the lack of accessibility represents a culture unaware of the plight of their fellow citizens with disabilities. More than just difficulty for citizens that use wheelchairs, it is wholesale, systematic discrimination.
"It is layer upon layer upon layer of discrimination, and it all intersects," Crawford said. "Our society's fundamental interdependency: If we are leaving someone behind, we are harming ourselves."
Crawford, along with others, eventually grew tired of complaining to local authorities and in September 2008 entered into a federal lawsuit against the City of Jackson, demanding their rights under the ADA. After one year of litigation, the United States government, represented by lawyers from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights division, joined the fray in July 2009. With their assistance, the City and the plaintiffs reached an agreement, called a consent decree, outlining commitments the City must meet.
These guidelines include the creation of an ADA advisory board, an ADA coordinator position within City government, and sets a structure for record-keeping. It requires that the City "shall maintain in operative condition the accessibility features on all existing vehicles." As City-owned buses fall out of working condition, there are questions about how the City is adhering to its side of the agreement.
"It took two years to get the consent decree. Thankfully, the Department of Justice got involved. And that was a great thing, and I am very grateful," Crawford said. "But it only lasted three years."
The U.S. District Court of Southern Mississippi recently granted an extension of the consent decree until late 2016; however, some citizens with disabilities still report unfulfilled or "no-show" requests for paratransit, also known as the handilift service, which picks up citizens in a bus designed to carry people in wheelchairs.
Handilift's Missed Riders
Mick Hintz, one such citizen with disabilities, moved to Jackson a few months ago, and at the urging of Crawford, started keeping a log of his missed handilift appointments.
The handilift service is a separate small fleet of buses equipped with a mechanism to assist members of the disabled community through a scheduled reservation-based program. It includes a hotline and complaint process as well.
"I moved from Clinton to Jackson so that I could take advantage of public transportation," Hintz said. "I've had more failures than successes with them."
Hintz, who was waiting for a handilift appointment while on the phone for the June 8 interview, explained that out of all the problems with the service, price was not one of them. Disabled riders purchase $2 vouchers that they turn in for their rides, and if the service misses the appointment, the consent decree then grants the rider, still without a ride, vouchers as compensation.
"It's about the same as riding the regular bus. I'm not complaining about the price," Hintz said, pointing out that his problem was with the voucher penalty for missed appointments.
"It's not enough of a penalty, in my opinion," Hintz said. "It doesn't pain them enough when they fail to meet the requirements of the consent decree. If they had to pay me a hundred bucks every time, they'd be making pickups. They would be getting it right."
"I wasn't around to deal with JATRAN and the consent decree before National Express showed up, but apparently things have gotten a lot worse," Hintz said.
National Express, the North American division of the multi-national public transit corporation of the same name, won the contract to manage the JATRAN system in October 2015.
Hintz decided to take action and joined the handilift advisory committee, a group that addresses the City's ADA Committee, which in turn advises the city council on steps it can take to remove barriers between the disabled community and equal access to public transportation.
"The problem is that these older people complain verbally, and they are not online, they don't have emails, they don't do cell phones," Hintz said. "I'm a young guy with computer skills, so I am going to start keeping track of every time I have a schedule whether it is made or missed. And they are missing more than they are making."
The U.S. Census Bureau, in a 2010 paper, stated that 1.5 percent of the nation's population age 18 to 64 years old uses a wheelchair to get around. Apply that percentage to Jackson's Census-estimated 2010 total population, 173,593, trimmed out for those below and above the age limit, and the total estimated wheelchair riding population of Jackson is 973.
Parse out the same numbers for those 65 and older that are wheelchair-bound, 5.2 percent, and the population stays about the same at 902. That is an estimated total wheelchair population for Jackson six years ago of 1,875.
"We are all in the same boat. Everybody fights this," Hintz said. "Everybody that has a disability that tries to use the public transportation has the same set of difficulties."
Lee Cole, chairwoman of the ADA advisory council for the City of Jackson, said she does not believe the public-transit system complies with the ADA consent decree.
"They are not completely in compliance," Cole said in a June 8 interview. "There are issues and problems that people run into constantly with the scheduling and buses not being available to make the trip, buses breaking down. The big problem we have right now is no air-conditioning on the buses."
Living without air conditioning in the South is no joke, not just an issue of sweat, but of safety.
"Some buses, there may be some air in the front of the bus, but the air conditioner in the back of the bus isn't working," Cole said.
JATRAN recently merged a senior-citizens program with the handilift service, Cole said, increasing the load on the already-strained resources of the public-transit system.
"People are getting late pickups for their trips," Cole said. "Now, since the senior-citizens program has merged with JATRAN since October 1, so now they are picking up seniors to take them to the centers, to take them to their appointments as well."
Because of the increased demand, and the lack of supply to meet it, wait times for paratransit can fluctuate. "They are supposed to be able to pick me up in a reasonable time to take me to my appointment," Cole added. "I have to take whatever is available."
"I missed a doctor's appointment two weeks ago ... supposed to be picked up at 12:55 for a 1:30 doctor's appointment. I never did get picked up. They never showed up, and I just canceled it," Cole said, which is unfortunate because, she explained, "for the most part, that's my primary transportation, on the bus."
Taxis offer another option for the disabled, Cole said, but at a much greater expense. "But by the time you get on a cab to get where you are going, you have spent about $15 to $30 to get where you are going. So rather than pay for a cab, $2 one way is more reasonable for the transportation."
Cole, even as chairwoman of the advisory board, is at wit's end with the City's complaint process. "We have had meetings; we have gone down to City Hall and provided public comments about the problem. We discuss them in our JATRAN advisory committee meetings every other month with the city and National Express—they come to the meetings too," she said.
With the conditions of the buses deteriorating as quickly as public confidence, it is a wonder which will give first: the buses or the people's patience.
"At one point, the drivers have been kind of refusing to take the buses out because they are in so ill repair: They don't have air, the bus may not be working properly or whatever," Cole said. "And the bus drivers have to ride on the bus, air or no air."
'No Sugar-Coating That'
"JATRAN, to be quite candid with you, is in a crisis," Eric Jefferson, director of the City of Jackson's planning department, said during a phone interview on June 15. "There's no sugar-coating that."
The sour taste associated with JATRAN is all due to maintenance, or lack there of, in years past, Jefferson said.
"We have had issues because we've had a large number of downed buses, meaning buses that are out of service due to, in need of, major repairs. And that has kept us from making the full pullout to provide service on all routes with the kind of headway that folks are normally used to," Jefferson said.
The JATRAN fleet consists of 48 buses, split into two categories: the larger, GILLIG-style buses and the smaller, paratransit buses used for the handilift service. The maintenance of these is crucial, Jefferson said, because they need just about every bus to run in order to meet the route loads for the day.
"We need about 19 paratransit, essentially the entire paratransit fleet, to provide efficient, reliable service," Jefferson said. "And those are the smaller buses that we use to carry our (riders with disabilities) that request it, and that is provided on a demand-response type basis. "
Combine that with an aging fleet and a City budget in crisis, and the future of public transit in Jackson seems dicey.
"We have an older fleet. A lot of them are nearing the end of their useful life," Jefferson said. "We are more prone to having breakdowns and failures because we have a significant number of buses that have a lot of vehicle miles on them and are aged."
"So with an older vehicle you have to put a little more time and effort to prevent any major catastrophic failures. It's like with a car, the older your car is the more likely you are to have problems that you wouldn't have in the first three or four years, when it was new," Jefferson said.
Attached to that maintenance is a dollar sign, one that carries more weight for the City these days as it faces a budget crisis.
"It is a huge burden," Jefferson said of the wear-and-tear that the constant service entails, adding that now the problem is reaching new levels. "JATRAN has been a troubled service for a long time. We have had issues with buses breaking down regularly for a long time. But where we are right now is, I believe, unprecedented because I have never heard of routes not being run because of buses being down."
Jefferson said that the City has placed a priority on repairing the fleet, 13 of which are now out of service.
"But we are attempting to work with the contractor to get those buses into a state of good repair, and the contractor has been developing a strategic plan to outline the necessary steps and actions needed to make sure we are delivering a high-quality transportation service," he said.
Jefferson said the problems with the air-conditioning indicated the problem with the past contractors that ran JATRAN. "We had a number of buses, particularly on our handilift vehicles that had been poorly maintained," he said. "The air conditioner had been poorly maintained in the past."
The new contractor, National Express, took the buses to "reputable" service locations, he added, "who, upon seeing the state of maintenance of air conditioning refused to touch them in some cases. It was deplorable."
"Now that's not National Express's fault. These are problems coming from years of poor maintenance on the part of past contractors," Jefferson said. "I can say that definitively."
Change in Contract
Jefferson said the public-transit system will survive despite the current financial climate in the City.
"The mayor has defined public health and safety, in terms of the budget crisis, as far as public services we need to provide," he said. "And while it might not necessarily seem to be obvious that public health and transit are related, they very much are because transit provides independence for people, and it also provides riders an opportunity to get to their health-care location."
"Anytime they can't depend on our transportation system to get them to those places," Jefferson said, "we jeopardize people's health, so it is important that we have a good working transportation system." (Remember Lee Cole and her missed doctor's appointment?)
"That's embarrassing if you have people who can't go and get, and you can't even call it basic care, but specialist treatments," Mayor Tony Yarber said during a June 15 interview. "People can't even rely on us to get them to work."
Yarber said that he had made solving the transit problems a top priority for his administrative heads.
"I tasked the Chief Administrative Office and the city planning director (Eric Jefferson) the other day with coming up with remedy," Yarber said. "It may find us in some litigation, I don't know, but at this point I don't even care. We have to do what is best for these folks."
If the City is committed to the transit system, and the poor maintenance in the past is the cause of our present problems, how is the new contractor different? Jefferson said it is all in the structure of the agreement between the new contractor, National Express, compared to the old set-up of JATRAN.
"We were advised at the time that the style of contract we had, which is basically what we call an administration contract, was where a contractor sends one guy in to oversee the operations," Jefferson said of the 2015 model before the City switched to the present contractor.
"The City set up a shell corporation to basically be the agency, to be JATRAN. These were not city employees; these were employees of the shell corporation, kind of a semi-private, I guess we should say semi-public, operation, and so everything kind of got funneled through that shell corporation."
The last contractor for the City's JATRAN operation was PTM of Jackson, a local representative of Transdev North America out of Lombard, Ill, Jefferson said. In October 2015 the City switched contracts to National Express, effectively absorbing the administrative sections of JATRAN.
Media representatives from Transdev responded to the accusations shortly after this story originally went to print.
"Transdev held a managerial role during our time with JATRAN," Scott Hagen, communications manager for Transdev North America, said in a statement. "We worked with the Jackson City Council to establish a transit budget and then implemented management of that budget with a city workforce."
"The management contract included a yearly audit of the fleet’s condition," Hagen said. "Based on our extensive experience with maintenance operations, Transdev would recommend a budget based on necessary maintenance of the fleet. Although the fleet was aging, Transdev worked within the budget set by the city to maintain the fleet."
"In 2015, JATRAN shifted its contracting model to include fleet maintenance. All bidders at the time were fully aware that maintenance risk would be the responsibility of the contractor and were provided ample opportunities to inspect and ask questions about the fleet. Ultimately, Transdev was unsuccessful in winning this new contract, in part because our price was higher," Hagen said. "Maintenance is a major component of our pricing estimates."
Jefferson explained that the city adjusted the contractual relationship between itself and the contractor.
"So what we did was change the contracting model to where operations and maintenance, although it was a part of the shell corporation, now was the responsibility entirely of an outside contractor, and we brought the administrative side of it into the city," Jefferson said.
"That allowed us to reduce some of the personnel costs that we were experiencing through the shell corporation, having to pay for HR and other personnel that when you broke it out that way, you didn't need to pay those people anymore."
Molly Hart, manager for public relations and media for National Express, said that the company was in the process of addressing the maintenance issues.
"We took over the maintenance department of the buses. And, as you know, the buses aren't in great working condition and weren't when we walked in, in October."
Hart said that the company performed an audit of the fleet, and many of the buses needed work, including transmissions and air conditioning systems.
"When we inherited this fleet, and in regards to the air conditioning, the previous company that used to oversee the buses didn't put in the air conditioners the right way. So that is why the new vendors won't touch it."
Hart said the company did not have a timeline for the repairs. However, the buses that were operating did have functioning air conditioning.
City Council President Melvin Priester Jr., of Ward 2, said that the new model allows the City to pay a flat fee for maintenance, "presumably to save cost."
"What these new people have said is that these buses that we are inheriting from the past operator are in terrible shape," Priester said during a June 15 interview. "So that's why all of the buses are breaking down."
At the moment, the contractor absorbs the cost for the routine maintenance, Jefferson said, while the larger costs, like replacing a door, are passed through to the city council for final approval. In short, the City owns the buses, and National Express maintains them.
"The routine maintenance is their responsibility and is paid by them or absorbed by their payment structure," Jefferson said. "When you get into major repairs like engines and replacing differentials, those are big-ticket items, those are things the City has to pay for not necessarily outside of the contract, but more as a pass-through."
The City will keep a closer eye on the contractors now, Jefferson said. "We've been meeting with them regularly to get reports from them on how their preventive maintenance is going," he said. "We are also inspecting their preventive maintenance records to make sure they are providing it in the timely manner we expect."
Jefferson said that there was a comparison to be made between the problems JATRAN faces and the infrastructure challenges the City deals with on a daily basis.
"The lack of maintenance or the lack of thought put into routine maintenance isn't just limited to our streets," Jefferson said. "Yeah, the underground utilities are a problem as well, but even our transportation system has suffered in that same way."
For the Moment
As for the next steps that residents with disabilities can take to address the poor handilift services, Crawford said that the consent decree can only do so much.
"So what DOJ tends to do is pick high-priority cases that can be used as a warning to everyone else. And JATRAN's consent decree was one of those times where we won the lottery," Crawford said. "And that's a good thing, but it isn't enough."
For Crawford, promises of vouchers are poor substitutes for missed pickups, for being left out late at night, or for having to ride in the road.
"ADA has weaknesses. One of the weaknesses is that there are very poor consequences," Crawford said. "The only real consequences is that the federal government could say we withdraw all federal aid to your location."
The irony, then, is that the final punishment the DOJ wields ends up hurting those that the consent decree is designed to protect.
"In particular, it punishes the very folks that want access," Crawford said. "Without the federal funds, we can't operate JATRAN. The feds know that, and to some degree the jurisdictions know that."
"They know that the gun is up to the heads of the very disadvantaged people who are asking for compliance," Crawford added, placing his index finger on his temple.
As for the buses, Jefferson said that the plan is to slowly replace the fleet and to watch over the contractor's commitment to maintenance more closely. But with the GILLIP buses costing the city over $375,000 each, Jefferson said, finding available funds might be an issue.
The City did, however, recently purchase two new buses, although they are on-back order, but Jefferson said they expect them next year. "So we will be looking at replacing our fleet systematically over the course of the next few years so hopefully we can eliminate a lot of our older, high-mileage buses that are going to have constant problems in terms of maintenance."
"They aren't cheap," Jefferson said. "Some of our buses were not really the best buses to have for our infrastructure, for our road environment. They burn out fast. You have to put a lot more time and money into them. They are just too light-weight for the road conditions here.'
But for some, like Crawford, it would be simpler if the City would adhere to ADA regulations, like building accessible sidewalks. "Please, just for goodness-sake, follow the law," he said.