Hearing raises safety concerns about Pace paratransit

By Marni Pyke | Daily Herald Staff

Daily Herald Logo - Embedded
State and Chicago officials joined disabled riders in calling for reforms to Pace's newly minted paratransit service Wednesday.

The suburban bus agency instituted major changes to the way paratransit works in Chicago this March, including dividing the city into three zones to be served by different transportation companies.

Initial computer glitches and customer dissatisfaction with the zone system provided for a rocky start and resulted in the Pace chairman forming a "blue ribbon" panel to come up with a fix.

During a daylong hearing Wednesday, Joel Polk, representing the Chicago mayor's office for people with disabilities, offered a list of recommendations for paratransit, which provides disabled individuals with door-to-door service.

He urged Pace to upgrade training so drivers are more sensitive to customers, to offer a centralized calling center so people don't need to contact multiple carriers and to have disabled riders give input on new vehicles.

"Many paratransit users have continued to express concern about their personal safety and comfort in the new carrier vehicles," Polk said.

Issues of safety on paratransit vans were echoed by Monica Heffner of Access Living, a Chicago-based organization that serves the disabled.

"I had an incident with a carrier and had to be hospitalized because I wasn't strapped down in the vehicle," said Heffner, who uses a wheelchair.

Meanwhile Robert Kilbury, director of the Illinois Division of Rehabilitative Services asked the agency to revisit the zoning system, suggested the blue ribbon committee should be more racially diverse and advocated for cheaper monthly passes.

"The lack of affordable transportation is a tremendous barrier to quality of life," Kilbury said.

Lynn O'Shea, of the Kane County paratransit coordinating council, offered a different perspective, explaining that transit for the disabled in rural areas is woefully inadequate.

"(In Illinois), we don't have equitable paratransit," she said. "Some people are literally trapped in their homes."

Pace, which took over paratransit from the Chicago Transit Authority in 2006, has said it's trying to update a system that suffered from numerous inefficiencies. Since March when rider anger peaked, on-time performance has gone up and complaints have gone down, officials said.

The blue ribbon committee is expected to report back to the Pace board in late fall.