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COVID-19 pandemic threatens the transit agencies that people with disabilities rely on

Max Schulte / WXXI News

Until recently, Sherrodney Fulmore rode a bus to get to and from his job at Wegmans.

From his home in Rochester’s 19th Ward to the Holt Road Wegmans in Webster, the trip usually took about an hour, he said.

Fulmore rode on the Regional Transit Service’s Access buses -- the smaller shuttle-size buses that offer curb-to-curb service for people with disabilities.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Rochester area, Fulmore stopped riding the bus.

“We wanted to cut the chance of him getting sick,” said his father, Frank Fulmore.

Now, Frank Fulmore drives his son to and from work. For Sherrodney, the commute is a lot shorter. He no longer shares a bus with other people who need to be picked up and dropped off at their own destinations before the bus arrives at Wegmans.

Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News
Frank Fulmore has taken on the commitment of driving his son, Sherrodney, to work, about a 40-minute round trip.

For Frank, it’s a new commitment. He makes the 40-minute round-trip drive twice a day when Sherrodney works.

Susan Dooha, the executive director at the Center for Independence of the Disabled, New York, said many people with disabilities don’t have the backup plans that the Fulmores do.

“They have many fewer options. There isn’t a fallback for them. They are likely to be more isolated and more trapped,” she said.

Across the country, Dooha said, public transportation is key to mobility for people with disabilities, but the COVID-19 pandemic has deterred ridership and strapped the budgets of many transit agencies.

Roughly 20% of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 66% of people without disabilities. They are also more than twice as likely to live in poverty. One of the big reasons, Dooha said, is a lack of reliable access to transportation.

“If you cannot get to a job interview, you cannot get a job,” she said.

She described transportation systems that are unpredictable and limited.

“If you can’t get to work on time, or if your boss sends you to a work site or meeting with a client and you can’t get from here to there, that tends to go very badly for employees. People can lose their jobs,” Dooha said.

“People with disabilities want to be employed and want to be reliable employees and perform like everyone else, but without transportation, that’s next to impossible.”

Rodney Fulmore said in general, the RTS works well for him, and his employers have been tolerant of occasional delays.

“Sometimes I run late for work, and I call in and I tell them that I’m going to be late for work, and they understand, and they say, ‘Just get here when you can,’ because they understand with the bus,” he said.

Credit CITY Newspaper file photo
Bill Carpenter, CEO of RTS.

RTS CEO Bill Carpenter said his transit system has “a modest rainy-day fund” and has not had to make any cuts to service during the pandemic despite decreasing ridership and dried-up funding streams.

That’s in stark contrast to some other transit networks around the country, where Dooha said COVID-19 “has taken a bad situation and made it worse.”

The New York City area’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is projecting a $16 billion shortfall over the next four years. In Livingston County, Michigan, the bus and paratransit system stopped service altogether for a few weeks.

But the pandemic did interrupt a planned redesign of the Rochester-area transit network. Carpenter said Reimagine RTS would trim some routes but provide more frequent service overall and more on-demand service for people with disabilities, but it’s now on hold indefinitely.

Carpenter said finances were not the major reason for suspending the transit network redesign -- rather, it was the difficulty of informing riders about the changes during the pandemic.

“We need to get in front of people to explain the changes,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of customer education that will need to take place. One day the bus network will look one way, and the next day it will look different.”

When the pandemic eases and physical distancing requirements are relaxed, Carpenter said he expects the plan to move forward.

Still, the level of funding that RTS will get from state and federal sources remains unclear.

“There is uncertainty as we look ahead 12, 18 and 24 months,” Carpenter said. “When the state (Legislature) comes back saying, ‘OK, RTS, here’s the revenue we have available to you,’ there may be reductions.”

RTS, like every transit system in the country, is required by federal regulations to provide accessible paratransit service within three-quarters of a mile from any of its fixed routes. That’s the service that Rodney Fulmore used before the pandemic.

Credit Max Schulte / WXXI News
Frank Fulmore, left, says he and his son, Sherrodney Fulmore, spend a lot of time together, and now they've added rides to Sherrodney's job at Wegmans to the mix. "People think we act more like brothers than father and son," Frank Fulmore said.

For people with disabilities who live, work or have appointments beyond that service area, companies like Medical Motor Services can provide connections.

“We want to be the last line of defense for people who can’t really get themselves from point A to point B in any other fashion,” said executive director Bob Topel.

His company is a nonprofit. (“Our mission is not to make money. We just sit there and try to break even,” he said.) But operating a fleet of more than 100 accessible vehicles is expensive, and the pandemic kept people home and dried up most of the company’s funding streams.

“It pretty much changed everything,” Topel said.

At the height of the outbreak locally, he laid off more than 80% of his drivers, he said. “It’s hard to pay people when you have no income, especially as a nonprofit.”

Dooha said companies like Topel’s are often operating on thin margins, even when the economy is in full swing. And she said community mobility companies with goals like Topel’s are admirable, but transit should not be designed in a way that leaves people with disabilities with only one option.

“Transit systems need a variety of ways of getting around so that if one doesn’t work, you’re not completely trapped,” she said. “That’s devastating for people’s mental and physical health.”

This story is part of Move to Include, an initiative that uses the power of public media to inform and transform attitudes and behaviors about inclusion. Move to Include was founded by WXXI and the Golisano Foundation and expanded with a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.


Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.