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Advocates for the disabled have won a major victory against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in a suit that says too many disabled riders are denied rides on SEPTA’s paratransit system. In his 30-page opinion in Liberty Resources Inc. v. SEPTA, Senior U.S. District Judge Lowell A. Reed Jr. declared that SEPTA is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act due to the high number of disabled riders who are left without transportation on a daily basis. Reed granted summary judgment in favor of the two advocacy groups that brought the lawsuit — Liberty Resources Inc. and Consumer Connection — but said he will decide on the remedy later. The opinion includes some strong criticisms of SEPTA for its failure to comply with federal regulations despite the fact that SEPTA arranges for rides for 97 percent of the disabled persons who request them. “I conclude that while SEPTA provides rides for many ADA-eligible patrons in compliance with the law, SEPTA may not rely on its own inadequacies to justify its noncompliance with the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act for all ADA-eligible patrons,” Reed wrote. Looking to statistics for a 13-month period, Reed found that nearly 30,000 ADA-eligible patrons were denied rides. To drive that finding home, Reed pointed out how often disabled riders are stranded on a daily and hourly basis. “Every day, approximately 74 disabled individuals are prevented from using the paratransit system. Spread over a 24-hour day, each hour, an average of three disabled individuals are denied rides,” Reed wrote. “Every day, around 30 such patrons are denied next-day service. Every weekend day, approximately 75 such riders are denied rides. Every day, an average of 66 peak-hour riders are forced to find alternative transportation. These individuals are kept from not only personal engagements, but from jobs and medical appointments as well.” For the disabled riders, Reed said, “SEPTA’s present paratransit system offers no safety net.” Because SEPTA denies rides to a “substantial number” of ADA-eligible patrons on a regular and consistent basis, Reed found that its conduct “constitutes a pattern and practice violation.” The ruling is a victory for attorneys Thomas H. Earle and Robin Resnick of the Disabilities Law Project, who filed the suit along with attorney Stephen F. Gold, a prominent sole practitioner who specializes in disability law. According to court papers, SEPTA’s paratransit system provides rides 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The centralized reservation system is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Paratransit service is provided on a first-come, first-serve basis to both ADA-eligible and elderly riders. Riders can lodge a “standing order” for regularly scheduled trips or can schedule specific trips, which SEPTA is expected to make within a two-hour window of the scheduled time. SEPTA’s lawyer, Bradley K. Moss of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, argued that SEPTA provides rides more than 97 percent of the time and therefore should not be held in violation of the ADA. But Reed found that Moss’ argument “misses the point of the statute.” The focus in the law, Reed said, is not on the percentage of rides that SEPTA does provide to the disabled, but on the number of rides that SEPTA fails to provide and the reasons for those failures. SEPTA conceded that the number of rides denied would be lower if it had more funding and could afford to buy more vehicles and pay more drivers. But Reed found that SEPTA ignored that fact when it drafted its budget. Instead of considering the number of rides demanded, the budget is based on figures for the number of rides provided. “I understand and appreciate the demands placed on SEPTA,” Reed wrote. But he also found that the U.S. Department of Transportation “was not blind to the difficult standard being imposed on public entities like SEPTA,” and that the agency “logically determined that the five-year phase-in period, the two-hour negotiated window, and the eligibility limits reduced the pressure to impose capacity constraints.” Federal law also allows for a waiver in cases where compliance with the service criteria creates an undue financial burden, Reed said, but SEPTA has never applied for one.

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