By JEFF MEYERS
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Agencies that provide public transportation must ensure equal access to those who use their services or face a potential loss in federal and state funding.
Debra Buell, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities across the North Country, recently spoke at a meeting of the Tri-County Coordinated Transit Committee, which consists of representatives from several public-transportation services across the region, including county public-transit companies, Behavioral Health Services North and the Advocacy and Resource Center of Clinton County.
Buell’s presentation focused on legislation that requires agencies that receive state and federal grant funding to provide handicapped access to all citizens who wish to use their services.
“Originally, I was scheduled to present a topic covering local issues related to Paratransit and accessibility demands that are being unmet,” Buell said before the meeting.
She met with Tom Vaughan, one of the deputy commissioners for the New York State Department of Transportation, several days before the local meeting.
“Once he became aware of the number of entities in our region who are not in compliance with either the Civil Rights Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act and who are not in compliance with their own grant-funding requirements, he asked me to change my presentation for the meeting.”
‘NO ONE EXEMPT’
Buell summarized legal requirements under the New York State Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.
“The Human Rights Commission recognized the need to equal opportunity for everyone to have a full and productive life,” she said. “Our state was one of the first states to recognize that we all have the right to be able to pursue happiness.”
Organizations that provide public transportation, including county transits, schools and both nonprofit and for-profit transportation services, must provide access for people with disabilities to receive state and federal grants, but Buell advised representatives during the meeting that several examples exist across the region where disability access is not being properly addressed.
“We are all responsible for understanding the law and for being in compliance with the law,” she said. “No one is exempt from the laws. We need the chain (connecting public transportation) to be strong.”
Recipients of federal 5310 grants for buses they operate must abide by federal laws, including a need to improve coordinated efforts among agencies that share services, she added.
“People who have taken the initiative to acquire those grants have to receive training on how to get the grants and on the reporting procedure,” she said. “Part of the reporting process should identify how vehicles are being used to serve all of the population it is meant to serve.”
“My main mission today is to highlight the laws applicable to public transportation,” she concluded. “We need to be equally dedicated to continue receiving funding.”
FUNDING AT RISK
Mike LaBello from the State Department of Transportation followed Buell’s presentation by agreeing that noncompliance can result in lost funding for transportation services.
“Our main purpose for today’s meeting is to move toward those things we all need to be doing,” said James Bosley, director for Clinton County Transit and host for the Coordinated Transit Committee meeting. He suggested that the committee could break into working groups to research and evaluate the situation.
“Whenever we receive federal money, the intent behind that grant is to spend it in ways to create the most efficient form of transportation,” Buell said. “The true intent behind the law is to help use learn to work together. ... not doing that is going to put us in danger (of losing funding).”
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