The Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund filed suit against the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District in U.S. District Court in San Jose Tuesday, alleging that the bus service violates the civil rights of the visually-impaired by failing to call out stops and announce routes.
But Santa Cruz Metro officials say the agency is commited to accessibility and taking steps to address activists concerns. By August 2003, said Santa Cruz Metro General Manager Leslie White, the entire bus fleet will have electronic announcement systems, ensuring compliance with the law.
The Defense Fund, which works on disability issues nationally, joined with the Denver, Colo. law firm of Fox & Robertson to file suit on behalf of two Santa Cruz residents – Joshua Loya, who is blind, and Deborah Lane, who is visually-impaired as a result of multiple sclerosis.
Loya and Lane, both students, said they have missed bus stops repeatedly because drivers fail to announce them. Lengthy walks and tardiness for work, classes and appointments have resulted, they said.
“If you can’t get where you need to go, you can’t live your life,” said Loya. “What if somebody told you that you can drive your car, but you can’t see any of the off-ramps or street signs anymore?”
Tim Fox, a partner at Fox & Robertson, said Santa Cruz Metro is in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, among other federal and state laws. The act requires compliance with Federal Transit Administration regulations that call on bus drivers to announce major intersections, points of transfer to other lines and any stops requested by passengers, Fox said.
Fox said Metro Accessible Services Transit Forum, an advisory group to Santa Cruz Metro, warned the bus service that drivers were not in compliance in 1989 and 1995, and a separate consultant raised the issue again in 1999.
“They don’t take it seriously,” said Fox, arguing that the suit may prompt action.
But White said Santa Cruz Metro is very serious about the issue.
“There’s a commitment from the management team, the board and the staff to maximize accessibility,” said White, noting that the district just completed a three-month training with all bus drivers.
Fox said in a Tuesday interview that the training was news to him and marked an improvement. He also said he was unaware that the Santa Cruz Metro Board of Directors had officially voted to equip the entire bus fleet with electronic announcement devices.
But he said he still had concerns about which stops would be announced under the new system and whether drivers might disable the electronic announcers.
Linda Kilb, an attorney with the Defense Fund, who argued that the problem is a national one, said Santa Cruz Metro must do a better job of pushing its drivers to announce stops.
“If they’re not being provided a management culture that informs them of their obligations and facilitates their obligations, it’s not going to work,” she said.
White said the agency has an ongoing monitoring system in place, with penalties ranging from sensitivity training to termination if a bus driver does not comply with the law.
He also noted that a recent Santa Cruz Metro survey showed that over 70 percent of drivers are in compliance, though he acknowledged that full compliance would be 100 percent.
“I would not call that a very impressive record,” said Fox, arguing that the public would not stand for an agency that discriminated against African-Americans 30 percent of the time.