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Changes to transit service for passengers with disabilities rattle union

"It's like having a physiotherapist perform brain surgery," Mark Beeching told The Tyee. "This change is rationalized as a cost saving measure, but it is false economy."

Beeching, a spokesman for the union that represents drivers and office staff in the Lower Mainland's custom HandyDART transit service for passengers with disabilities and mobility challenges, says that the BC Liberals are making changes to the system that hurt these passengers.

Beeching said that TransLink is moving 10,000 hours of service annually from the unionized service to contracted-out work by local taxi companies in a change of policy that came into effect April 1.

He said the change means that transit service for vulnerable passengers will be delivered by low paid and poorly-trained taxi drivers rather than by extensively-trained and highly experienced union workers.

"Christy Clark ran on a 'Family First' platform," said Beeching, a HandyDART driver and member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1724, on April 11.

"Disabled people and seniors seem not to be included in the Liberal party's family. Providing safe, custom public transportation is a cost savings to the health care system. The question shouldn't be 'How can we afford stable funding for HandyDART?'; it should be 'How can we afford not to?'"

The Tyee contacted the B.C. Ministry of Transportation for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

TransLink spokesperson Derek Zabel said that the changes would actually increase service to the disabled.

"In 2012, the provincial audit of TransLink and the Regional Transportation Commissioner's Efficiency Review both identified potential improvements to our custom transit services to be more efficient and still meet the needs of customers. Supplemental taxi service has always been a part of our custom transit service delivery model," Zabel wrote in an emailed response today.

"We began a pilot program in April which reallocates more service hours to taxis on HandyDART runs that were inefficient to run. These would be runs where the travel time is extensive and there may only be one or two customers on board. These runs are better serviced by taxi, which helps us to reduce costs. The costs that are saved from these runs then get reinvested back into the system where we can provide customers with more service with either our designated HandyDART vehicles or using supplemental taxis."

Beeching and his union local have organized a public forum on what they see as a crisis in HandyDART service delivery. The meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 13 at 2 p.m. at Collingwood Neighbourhood House, 5288 Joyce in Vancouver.

HandyDART as it is currently managed is not meeting demand, Beeching said. In 2011, he said, 18,000 trips were denied. By June 2012 that number of denied trips had already been surpassed.  

"TransLink has assigned these trips during HandyDART's off peak hours," he said. "Those hours are the taxi services' peak hours. News reports have frequently spoken of the difficulty of finding taxi rides during those hours. Taxi drivers will be placed in the unfortunate position of making HandyDART passengers wait while they take more lucrative trips."

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your story tips and feedback at [email protected]. Disclosure: Sandborn worked as a HandyDART driver a decade ago.

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