Para-Transit System at breaking point

Nadya Bell
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Transportation City calls on province to pay full price for medical transfers

It's bursting at the seams, it's no longer an adequate service and it's not meeting the demands of the disabled community.

These are words used to describe the Para-Transit System of St. John's by Cecil Whitten, a longtime user of the service and chairman of the city's para-transit committee, and Ron Ellsworth, the deputy mayor of St. John's and councillor on the committee.

Wheelway client Cecil Whitten stands in front of his St. Johns home on Friday morning prior to boarding a para-transit vehicle. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

It's bursting at the seams, it's no longer an adequate service and it's not meeting the demands of the disabled community.

These are words used to describe the Para-Transit System of St. John's by Cecil Whitten, a longtime user of the service and chairman of the city's para-transit committee, and Ron Ellsworth, the deputy mayor of St. John's and councillor on the committee.

They say the provincial government is relying on the service to transfer people between medical facilities, but not contributing enough to the system's operating expenses.

The para-transit service is so overtaxed right now that people with disabilities have to wait a week or more to get a ride, they say.

The provincial government says it is investigating its use of para-transit, but have not come to a decision.

But it's not that Whitten and Ellsworth don't like the service. Whitten, now retired, used the service twice a day to go to and from work for many years and, along with his wife, is still a frequent rider.

"It's a case of bringing a good system up to date and making it better, and it needs to be done," he says. "The whole system needs to be brought into the 21st century."

"This is our right. We are equal to the able-bodied community. We have the same power and we are going to use it," he says, flourishing a voter's "X" on his notebook.

"I'm 60 years old. It's not for me - it's for the little ones growing up now, going to school," he says.

Many people in the disabled community don't want to speak up and call for a better service, because they are afraid that if they complain they will lose the one service they do have, Whitten says.

"So the disabled community is lining up for the service, which should never be," he says.

The St. John's Para-Transit System runs parallel to the regular public transportation of Metrobus, and is set up in much the same way. Wheelway Transportation Inc. has a contract with the city to operate the by-appointment service that takes people with mobility issues around the city in accessible buses.

The service only costs users slightly more than taking Metrobus, at $2.50 a ride.

Like the public bus system, the para-transit contract is set up so user fees are only part of the system costs, and the city pays the balance. In the case of Wheelway, the city pays an extra $10.50 a ride.

Ron Ellsworth says the problem is that the city can't afford to meet all the demand for para-transit in the city.

"We have recognized over the last year that we have major cracks in the system, to the point that we're no longer serving the clientele we should be serving with adequate service," he says.

"We have more demand than we have ability to provide ridership," Ellsworth says. "Individuals need to call a week to a week and a half in advance if they are looking to do things. That's not what the system was intended to do. You should be able to call within 24 to 48 hours and access transportation," he says.

Ellsworth says the service is stressed because the province has gotten out of transportation at the hospitals, seniors homes and other medical facilities. Instead of having their own transportation services, Ellsworth says about 25 per cent of all rides on Wheelway are medical transfers from one medical facility to another.

The problem isn't that the province is using the service, Ellsworth says, it's that they only pay the public fee of $2.50 a ride, leaving the city of St. John's with the lion's share of the bill for the service's operating costs.

While the provincial government's contribution to the service has remained steady at $94,500 a year, the City of St. John's costs have gone from the same amount in 1992 up to $997,637 last year. The City of Mount Pearl also contributes $50,000 to the service.

"It's to the point now that if nothing's going to be done, we're going to take action, because our job is to provide transportation. Our job is not to provide medical transports," Ellsworth says.

The City of St. John's has been lobbying the provincial government for seven years to increase the amount that it pays into the system.

Ellsworth says movement has been slow, they have made some progress recently, with Premier Danny Williams looking at the issue, and Shawn Skinner, minister of Human Resources, Labour and Employment, is looking into the situation.

But Ellsworth says the province's action may not happen in time. There is a meeting of the para-transit committee on Thursday and, he says, if they don't hear a positive response from the province, they will recommend council tell Wheelway to stop medical transfers altogether.

"We're pretty well at the breaking point now. We've been very patient, we've worked through the system, we've been up and down the bureaucracy," Ellsworth says.

Skinner said Friday he is looking into the issue and is determining how government is using the system.

"What I've been trying to do is substantiate that claim, in terms of government using the system a lot. So I'm trying to gather: where is government using it, how is it using it, how often, and what is it using the system for," he says.

"If in fact we are, then sure, I think we would have to move forward and try to see if we can contribute to it. But if in fact we aren't, then I guess it'll be a decision of government how it wants to respond to that," he says.

Skinner says he has committed to get back to Ellsworth before the next meeting of the para-transit committee.

"I'm not committing that we're going to have an answer vis-À-vis funding. I'm committing that I'm going to inform him of what I've been able to determine and what my next moves will be," he says.

nbell@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Para-Transit System, Wheelway Transportation, Human Resources

Geographic location: St. John's, Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Helen
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    I would like to personally thank Mr. Whitten and Mr. Ellsworth for being so passionately committed to getting more funding for the Para Transit System. I deal with the concerns and frustrations daily from the disabled community. The Provincial Government must realize that a large percentage of the runs used by the disabled community are not just leisure or for social activity. We has a disabled community have concerns relating to employment, medical and the well being of our children. While wheelway continues to strive to make medical and employment bookings a priority, due to the number of runs taken up by Eastern Health, it is next to impossible to make it happen. It does baffle me that Mr. Skinner would need to further look into the situation when this has been an ongoing issue for a few years now and the service continues to decline. I would think that the records are clearly kept on the percentages used by the medical facilities verses the disabled community, therefore it is not rocket science that more funding must go into the Para Transit System by the Provincial Government. I personally would like to commend Mr. Allard and all Wheelway staff for the committment over the years. Sometimes it is difficult for the users to remain calm when a run is desperately needed or to understand the bureaucracy of the system. In truth, the disabled community has enough concerns to deal with on a daily basis and they should not have to deal with the issues of why a system that was put in place to meet their needs, is now failing them because the Provincial Government is saturating it. I encourage all Para Transit System users to voice their concerns. We must put pressure on the Provincial Government and we must make them understand that we are equals. We have a voice and we must use it because everyone has a right to freedom for whatever reason and this is our god given right.

  • Bill
    July 02, 2010 - 13:13

    As a person with a disability and Long time member of paratransit advisory committee as well as a user on a regular basis of the system I agree with Mr. Ellsworth and Mr. Witten when they say this has been a seven-year exercise. The foregoing article presents an accurate picture of the situation as it stands.

    Since the first paratransit system in the city in 1981 both the demand and the system had grown exponentially. For those that remember earlier systems what we currently have is an improvement. It is now time however to revitalize the system so that it has the capacity to provide adequate transportation opportunities for people with disabilities as MetroBus does for all citizens of st. John's.

    It is time for all principals to work together to create a system that allows people with disabilities to go about their daily lives in a manner that suits their needs. My personal thanks to Wheelway and its staff who treat me with dignaty on a daily basis.

  • Helen
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    I would like to personally thank Mr. Whitten and Mr. Ellsworth for being so passionately committed to getting more funding for the Para Transit System. I deal with the concerns and frustrations daily from the disabled community. The Provincial Government must realize that a large percentage of the runs used by the disabled community are not just leisure or for social activity. We has a disabled community have concerns relating to employment, medical and the well being of our children. While wheelway continues to strive to make medical and employment bookings a priority, due to the number of runs taken up by Eastern Health, it is next to impossible to make it happen. It does baffle me that Mr. Skinner would need to further look into the situation when this has been an ongoing issue for a few years now and the service continues to decline. I would think that the records are clearly kept on the percentages used by the medical facilities verses the disabled community, therefore it is not rocket science that more funding must go into the Para Transit System by the Provincial Government. I personally would like to commend Mr. Allard and all Wheelway staff for the committment over the years. Sometimes it is difficult for the users to remain calm when a run is desperately needed or to understand the bureaucracy of the system. In truth, the disabled community has enough concerns to deal with on a daily basis and they should not have to deal with the issues of why a system that was put in place to meet their needs, is now failing them because the Provincial Government is saturating it. I encourage all Para Transit System users to voice their concerns. We must put pressure on the Provincial Government and we must make them understand that we are equals. We have a voice and we must use it because everyone has a right to freedom for whatever reason and this is our god given right.

  • Bill
    July 01, 2010 - 19:51

    As a person with a disability and Long time member of paratransit advisory committee as well as a user on a regular basis of the system I agree with Mr. Ellsworth and Mr. Witten when they say this has been a seven-year exercise. The foregoing article presents an accurate picture of the situation as it stands.

    Since the first paratransit system in the city in 1981 both the demand and the system had grown exponentially. For those that remember earlier systems what we currently have is an improvement. It is now time however to revitalize the system so that it has the capacity to provide adequate transportation opportunities for people with disabilities as MetroBus does for all citizens of st. John's.

    It is time for all principals to work together to create a system that allows people with disabilities to go about their daily lives in a manner that suits their needs. My personal thanks to Wheelway and its staff who treat me with dignaty on a daily basis.