Of the 1.1 million trips people take every year on Columbus’ Metra bus service, fully a third of the trips are taken by people with a disability, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Wednesday.
Tomlinson was standing at the bus transfer station behind Metra’s Linwood Boulevard headquarters, about to join Columbus resident Jessica Cowell’s for the second half of her two-leg daily trip to work. The two-mile trip from her home south of Bibb City to the Disability Service Center where she works takes her about an hour, whereas the trip could be driven in four or five minutes.
The event was to draw attention not only to Disability Employment Awareness Month, but also to the coming improvements planned for Metra, thanks to $22.4 million from the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
“We’re going to invest over 22 million with TSPLOST funds to update our Metra transit system,” Tomlinson said. “You will see better routes, better investment in Dial-A-Ride, which is an aspect of our transit system that responds to those with disabilities who cannot access the regular Metra lines.”
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Tomlinson said what used to be called Disability Awareness Month is now Disability Employment Awareness Month, to recognize the many citizens who are looking for jobs but have trouble getting to and from work. Transportation challenges are one reason the unemployment rate is 15.2 percent for people with disabilities and 8.1 percent for those without, Tomlinson said.
Cowell said she hopes the planned improvements will allow her to live an even more independent lifestyle than she already does.
“If I didn’t have the bus service I wouldn’t be able to come down here,” Cowell said. “It’s a really exciting time because they’re already starting to work on things. They’re going to have longer hours, which is really exciting because my biggest challenge is getting home after work.”
In addition to extending the hours of service, the TSPLOST funds will allow Metra to buy more buses and hire more drivers, which will allow it to expand its Dial-A-Ride service, which allows the disabled to call ahead at least 24 hours and arrange for a door-to-door ride.
Metra also plans to use the funds to make bus stops more accessible and usable for riders with disabilities.
Jay O’Neal, executive director of the Disability Service Center, where Cowell works, said Metra plays an important role in allowing people with disabilities to get a job and maintain an independent lifestyle.
“You and I may be able to just hop in our, crank it up and go to work, but for individuals with disabilities, they depend on public transportation to get to and from work,” O’Neal said. “It’s such an important factor in offering them a life of independence, and feeling as though they’re a significant contributor to the community.”