Every Tuesday, a group of people with disabilities meets in a small room inside the Progressive Independence office, a non-profit agency operated by individuals with disabilities to provide independent living services, in Norman to share the difficulties of living in a small town and discuss accommodations they feel should be made for them.
In their Oct. 22 meeting, the topic of discussion was the Cleveland Area Rapid Transit bus system.
As the fall semester began, many of the city’s bus routes transitioned from OU operation to city operation through a government entity known as Embark. According to Progressive Independence group members, the transition caused delays — and even gaps — in the much-needed bus service.
Members of the group discussed struggles with the paratransit bus service, formerly known as CARTaccess, which was often used by people with disabilities in the Norman community.
Now, Norman citizens will vote Nov. 12 on whether to authorize a sales tax to help fund public transportation operations following the transition.
According to the Norman website, the tax would consist of a one-eighth percent sales tax that would take effect April 2020 and go toward a public transportation fund. The tax would also coincide with the end of a one-fourth percent sales tax, meaning the sales tax for public transportation would not raise the sales tax overall.
Mayor Breea Clark discussed the public transit vote in a video the city tweeted Monday.
On Tuesday, residents will have the opportunity to vote on a one-eight percent sales tax measure to fully fund Norman's public transit system without raising current tax rates. Learn more at https://t.co/8lPhzotKQg.See Mayor Clark's overview at https://t.co/ODXwdOBoJ3— City of Norman, OK (@cityofnormanok) November 11, 2019
Huddie Dean, one of the members of Progressive Independence who uses the bus system, said he’s only been able to schedule bus rides weeks ahead of time, as the schedule is full otherwise.
“It sucks because we went from, ‘Call today, get a ride tomorrow,’ (but) you can’t do that anymore,” Dean said.
Dean said issues with paratransit service have affected numerous people who have challenges getting around.
“You have people with wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” Dean said. “They can’t walk very far anywhere. You got Walmart runs, you got doctor’s visits, you got personal visits — places they just want to go. People can’t get there right now.”
Dean said he’s been forced to ride his bike to catch the city bus to get where he needs to go, but some of the other members of the group don’t have that option since they use wheelchairs.
City of Norman public works director Shawn O’Leary said the transition began in the fall of 2018 when OU’s Cleveland Area Rapid Transit service informed the city it was no longer interested in operating the off-campus bus routes after controlling it since 1980.
O’Leary said the city of Norman became the recipient of funding from the Federal Transit Administration on July 1, 2019, but OU continued operating all routes until Aug. 2. Then the city took control of off-campus routes and operated them around the city.
OU continued to operate CARTaccess paratransit service until Oct. 2, at which point it no longer operated any part of the system outside routes on or near OU’s campus. O’Leary said OU’s decision not to run the public bus routes anymore came as a “complete surprise” to the city.
“It’s important to recognize that the university ran the system for 35 years, so this was a very established, actually very well-run operation,” O’Leary said.
OU director of parking and transportation Kristapher Glenn said OU’s decision was motivated by the fact that the university was losing money by running the CART system — almost $400,000 a year.
When the city learned about OU’s intention to relinquish bus system control, O’Leary said it contacted the Federal Transit Administration for help in planning the transition. The city asked the administration about other cities that had undergone similar transitions and found that, according to government records, there weren’t any.
“What’s happening here in Norman is extremely unique. It’s not exactly something that we can go open a manual and tell us exactly how to do that,” O’Leary said.
Embark was contracted by the Norman City Council to operate the majority of the city’s routes. Embark, which operates Oklahoma City’s public transit system, began operating Norman city routes on Aug. 3.
One of the biggest challenges in the transportation system transition has come in paratransit service.
O’Leary said the university laid off several CARTaccess drivers during the transition, and the city encouraged Embark to rehire as many of them as possible. But some of the drivers that were not rehired stopped coming to work for OU, creating a shortage.
“We think for the most part (OU is) doing OK, but we are hearing from some of our customers, some of the riders, that they’re not able to get the same level of service that they were getting from the university a couple of months ago,” O’Leary said when OU was still running CARTaccess in the transition.
Amy Brown, a counselor at Progressive Independence, said transportation gaps following the bus system transition has made it difficult for her to make it to work.
“I have a ride scheduled for Thursday to come here and work, and stuff like that, but I wasn’t able to schedule a ride for Friday because they said they were all booked up for Friday. So, in my case, I have to miss work. Plus, I miss time on my paycheck, so that doesn’t make me too happy,” Brown said. “I hope it gets fixed soon because if not, it’s gonna make my life difficult financially.”
O’Leary said during the period from Aug. 2 to Oct. 1, the university struggled with not having enough drivers to operate the CARTaccess system. He said at least nine drivers are needed to operate the buses properly, but the university only had five drivers available at times.
“Naturally, when you’re short of drivers, you’re not going to be able to deliver as many rides as you were before,” O’Leary said.
But Glenn said the operation of the CARTaccess system during the transition went smoothly.
“There’s been no issues with (the city of Norman) running the bus system and us running CARTaccess. It’s been a good collaboration,” he said during the transition.
Glenn said OU administration considered the city’s resources before deciding to transfer control of the routes.
“We started meeting with the city early on, we gave them a year’s notice, and so, I mean, the transition took more than a year. And throughout that year, they hired a public transit coordinator, they partnered with Embark, we worked very closely together,” Glenn said. “And, what you have to realize is, there’s federal money that comes with this. There’s several million dollars a year that comes with this.”
But O’Leary said the city still doesn’t have enough resources or funding to handle the demands of a new transportation system.
“That’s really the biggest challenge that we face, is that the city was sort of handed this system without adequate funding,” he said.
O’Leary said the city is receiving a $2 million grant every year from the Federal Transit Administration, but he believes it will take about $5 million a year to operate the buses.
“This has been a major impact to the city’s budget. We’re literally sort of going month-to-month right now trying to figure out how we’re going to fund this program,” O’Leary said.
The tax being voted on Tuesday could provide another stable source of funding, but some of the members of Progressive Independence say it’s unclear where the tax revenue will actually go.
“It’s like (city officials) don’t want the disabled community involved in any of the (city council) committees because they know that we’ll bring up issues that they don’t want brought up,” Brown said. “Let’s say it passes, and they say it’s going for transportation, but how are we guaranteed that? We’re not.”
John High, a member of the Progressive Independence group, said the city has not proven that it can discern what the tax revenue needs to be spent on, even if the tax does pass.
“The problem I have is the city has the money to be able to run the bus system, OK? They spend it out on overhead tennis courts that cost $200,000 for two units, two courts, but they can’t supply a bus system for the city of Norman,” High said. “That $200,000 could even open up a Saturday for the bus system that we don’t have at this time. So which is more important?”
High also said the disabled community was not sufficiently included in discussions over the bus system transition or tax implementation.
But O’Leary said the sales tax is necessary to operate the public transportation system.
“Without that sales tax revenue, I think we’re going to struggle. The city’s going to struggle to operate this system at the level it used to be operated without cutting something else out of the budget," O’Leary said. "Something’s gonna have to go.”