DOT Guidance Clarifies Paratransit Regulations


This article is provided as a courtesy service of the Great Lakes ADA News Service under a subcontract with the Disability News Services and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, NIDRR #133D60011.  Please review the Conditions for Reproduction of this Article.

(1,173 words, posted March 3, 2000)

by Leye Jeannette Chrzanowski 
Copyright ©2000 The Disability News Service, Inc.

On March 1, 1999, Louis Collins refused to leave a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) paratransit vehicle. His reason? The paratransit service had caused him to either miss or be late for his college classes six times in two months — despite his attempts to schedule rides to get him to school one hour before classes.

Collins' experience is not unusual. Many people with disabilities are frustrated and confused about their rights under the paratransit provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), but technical assistance and recent written guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) may help clarify some of the more contentious parts of the law.

Primer on Paratransit  
The ADA requires public entities operating fixed route transportation systems to provide comparable complementary paratransit services to people with disabilities.

Essentially, complementary paratransit serves a core area of 0.75 mile-wide corridors on each side of a fixed route. Outside the core area, 1.5 mile-wide corridors are permitted. If a paratransit-eligible individual lives in an isolated area, he or she is responsible for reaching the nearest paratransit service pickup point.

Trips can be booked for the following day — 24-hour notice is not required — and reservations can be made up to 14 days in advance. Trips may be booked during a transit agency's administrative offices hours of operation, or by leaving a telephone message after hours. Standing appointments or subscription service for regular trips, going to and from work, for example, may also be arranged. However, subscription service cannot constitute more than 50 percent of paratransit trips scheduled at a given time. Waiting lists for paratransit are prohibited, except for subscription service.

Providers can negotiate pick up times, but trips must begin no later than one hour before or after the person's desired departure time at either end of the trip. Operators must provide service within this window — even when the individual making the reservation agrees to another time period.

Transit agencies cannot limit the number of trips a person schedules during a given time period, and cannot place restrictions or set priorities on a trip's purpose. To reserve a trip, the only information needed is...

DOT Guidance  
DOT is charged with enforcing the paratransit provisions of ADA. Over the years, DOT and its Federal Transit Agency (FTA) have issued guidance on some of the more confusing aspects of the regulations.

In December 1998, Philadelphia attorney Stephen Gold asked Patrick W. Reilly, FTA's chief counsel, if a transit provider violates the ADA's complementary paratransit regulations if it lacks the capacity to provide paratransit service on a regular basis...

In his March response, Reilly determined that a transit provider violates the ADA if it does not have the capacity to service 100 percent of the demand at all times. Reilly further noted that dealing with swings in demand for service is the responsibility of the provider.

“However, if a transit agency has not adequately dealt with this issue, and the transit agency denies ADA complementary paratransit service to a qualified individual with a disability because it does not have the capacity to respond to demand, the denial of ADA complementary paratransit service is discrimination within section 202 of the ADA,” wrote Reilly.

In other words, if the denial is the result of inclement weather or some other force outside the transit agency's control, it is not a violation of the ADA. If the denial is the result of a transit agency decision, for example, a lack of vehicles, it is a violation of the ADA.

Gold also asked whether the inability to provide round-trip reservations, and whether providing trips outside the one-hour window on either side of a trip — even when an individual accepts the ride — constitute trip denials.

“To guarantee an outbound trip while denying the ADA paratransit individual return service...would constitute a trip denial...,” responded Reilly. He also concluded, “The individual's acceptance of an alternative time slot does not change the character of the discriminatory act.” Reilly noted transit agencies must document their inability to schedule trips within the one-hour window on either side of a trip because it may indicate a capacity constraint problem which violates the law.

SEPTA's chief operating officer, Cheryl Y. Spicer, disputed Reilly's March response, and wrote to FTA Administrator Gordon J. Linton in July 1999, asking if a public entity violates DOT regulations if it does not provide a paratransit ride to each and every eligible ADA paratransit patron who requests one. Spicer asserted that unless there were a “substantial number” of denials the law was not violated.

In April, 1996, Linton had responded to a similar request for guidance from the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority. Linton concluded that DOT's ADA regulations do not require that all trips be served in order for an operator to be in full compliance, “neither does it provide a number or percentage of trip denials that is considered to be acceptable.” Instead, Linton suggested, “ In considering the relationship between service capacity and trip denials, it is probably more useful to focus on the number and nature of trip denials rather than the percentage of demand met.”

In his December 28, 1999 response to Spicer, Reilly wrote that any operational pattern or practice that significantly limits the availability of service to eligible people violates the ADA. This includes, but is not limited to substantial numbers of...

He also reiterated his earlier guidance to Gold. “...those matters, which the transit agency controls, such as decisions on resources for paratransit services, must be designed to meet the demand by all eligible riders, rather than some subset of total demand.”

He also noted that the term “substantial number” used in the regulations does not allow transit agencies to make operational decisions to serve less than all eligible riders. Because fixed route systems do not operate like this, paratransit systems should not either, Reilly stated. Since demand on fixed route systems is met by acquiring additional vehicles, placing larger vehicles on certain routes, better scheduling, contracting for additional service, and anticipating future demand, Reilly concluded that these solutions should be applied to meet increased demand for paratransit service as well.

Reilly's guidance has produced some positive results according to Gold. He asserts people now use the contents of Reilly's two letters to “badger” paratransit providers to comply with the law.

Paratransit Resources
Federal Transit Administration
ADA Toll-Free Technical Assistance Line
(888) 446-4511 (voice) 
(800) 877-8339 (TTY)

This work was performed under a subcontract with the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, NIDRR #133D60011.

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