A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
For much of her life, Barbara Miller’s world revolved around the hospitality industry on St. Thomas where she was a service worker in restaurants and hotels. Now she’s become an advocate and is “getting a quick course in politics” for her one-woman campaign to improve bus service for the disabled.
Things started to change for Miller a few years ago when she developed a degenerative spinal condition that has left her dependent on Social Security and on VITRAN Plus, the local government’s response to federal mandates to provide assisted transportation for individuals who qualify for it under Americans with Disabilities guidelines.
Under the program, an eligible rider can schedule door-to-door service. Cost is $2 per stop.
Miller has used the service regularly ever since she had surgery about three years ago and says she’s extremely grateful for it, despite some rather obvious weaknesses in the system.
Basically, there aren’t enough vehicles; there aren’t enough drivers.
The air conditioning in one bus rarely works, Miller said. Another bus has a crack in the windshield that runs all the way across the glass.
“Any John Q. Public would not be allowed to drive like that,” she said. The wheelchair lifts on some buses don’t function, limiting their usefulness. Twice in recent weeks, she’s had a driver interrupt service because of a mechanical problem. There’s often a long wait because there simply aren’t enough drivers.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back” she says, was the day, a few months ago, when she waited more than two hours for a scheduled pick-up after her physical therapy appointment. Sitting for a prolonged time is very uncomfortable and, by the time she got home, she was in real pain.
That’s when she decided to start agitating for better service. Since then, she’s been calling and visiting senators, executive branch officials and VITRAN staff, trying to shake loose more local funding.
“We definitely could use more resources,” said Steve Monsanto, VITRAN operations manager on St. Thomas. “These buses right now are at the end of their life.”
Monsanto said he was not aware of a vehicle with a cracked windshield, but that wheelchair lifts often malfunction. “It’s age.” Some of the buses have “over 100,000 miles on them,” and those are rough miles on unforgiving terrain; bumpy rides can shake loose the electronics for the lifts.
There are new buses coming, but the government is behind in meeting demand.
In 2011 the V.I. government formulated its VITRAN Plus Plan to use the specially equipped buses to provide what ADA calls paratransit service for those who are eligible under ADA regulations. Eligible individuals are defined as those who, because of a disability, cannot board, ride or disembark from a bus without assistance and/or have an impairment-related condition that prevents them from getting to a fixed route.
According to the Plan, in 2011 an estimated 16,000 people territorywide could be eligible under the guidelines. However, at that point only 571 had actually been certified – 326 on St. Croix, 199 on St. Thomas and 46 on St. John. But the numbers are steadily increasing.
“Even with word of mouth, the system is growing by leaps and bounds,” Monsanto said, adding that the government doesn’t advertise the program or actively recruit clients.
As of this month, 904 people in the territory are certified as eligible to ride VITRAN Plus, according to Public Works ADA compliance officer Constancia Hodge. And there are another 15 applications pending on St. Thomas, nine on St. Croix and two on St. John.
Many of the riders are dialysis patients, making good service a matter of life and death for them, Miller said.
The number of buses is not growing as fast as the ridership.
In 2011, according to the plan, there were five paratransit buses on St. Croix, five on St. Thomas and one on St. John. Today, Monsanto said, there are seven on St. Croix, eight on St. Thomas and one on St. John – all of them in need of replacement.
Seven buses were ordered and paid for this year, with a combination of local and federal funds, Monsanto said. Another 13 buses, provided by the Federal Transit Authority, will be sent to the territory next year, beginning probably as early as January.
By 2017, he’s hopeful there will be enough paratransit buses on Virgin Islands roads that new vehicles acquired after that will be used to supplement the fleet rather than to replace aging buses.
The program came under scrutiny by the U.S. Attorney’s Office last year. In November 2014, the office issued a report citing problems including insufficient buses, poor maintenance, lack of drivers, delays in pick-ups and limitations in scheduling.