By Joshua Blake
A blind woman in her sixties, Marilyn Tucci, waits with a small group of college students for their bus to arrive in Port Jefferson. Tucci is showing the students the issues with public transportation for people with disabilities. Once the bus got there, Tucci told the driver where to stop. He missed it.
Tucci relies heavily on the Suffolk County Accessible Transportation (S.C.A.T.) program due to her blindness.
“The bus routes are terrible, they don’t add up,” Marilyn Tucci, Suffolk Independent Living Organization (S.I.L.O.) Outreach and Advocacy Director, said in a phone interview.
Like Tucci, other people with disabilities rely on the S.C.A.T. program to get around in their daily life.
The S.C.A.T. bus system started in 1994, and it doesn’t run past 8:30 p.m., hurting the social life of many with disabilities, and implemented a Sunday service only four years ago.
While Tucci is grateful about Sunday service, it doesn’t cover the entire island. Also, before it was implemented, socializing for her was worse.
“On Sundays people couldn’t go to a church, they couldn’t go to a restaurant, they couldn’t meet other people unless they got a car ride,” Tucci said.
The buses run every hour, but Tucci said she believes they should run as much as every half hour. There isn’t enough money in the S.C.A.T. budget despite Suffolk’s plan to address mass transit issues.
Suffolk County’s Connect Long Island plan says that it aims to “help stem and reverse the trend of young people leaving our region,” by developing additional mass transit routes. It is unclear how this plan would aid disabled bus riders.
“We got 500,000 dollars this year for transportation, and that’s all we’re getting,” Paul Pressman, an advocate for transit issues for disabled people in Suffolk County, said.
Public works should look at how rerouting buses to other streets is more efficient for their service than cutting a bus with low ridership, Tucci said.
“I know a lot of people say ‘oh, I don’t want buses on my street,” Tucci said. “But sometimes you have to think about maybe if the bus is say, not doing well on Waverly avenue, maybe it will do better on Montauk highway.”
The S.C.A.T. program is supposed to get its riders anywhere they need to be within an hour-and-a-half, and that’s where things become time consuming. A 20 minute car ride could take a S.C.A.T. rider twice the amount of time due to a shared ride approach.
Dispatchers not familiar with the county, cuts to certain routes and a lack of funds are additional issues Pressman and Tucci speak of. “If they had the money, they’d be doing things right now,” Pressman added.
Lack of awareness is also a key issue
“Somebody with a disability is going to have fewer options out there for getting around,” Director of the Suffolk County Office for People with Disabilities, Frank Krotschinsky, an attorney who has Spina bifida – a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t develop correctly, said.
Krotschinsky’s been the director for the last nine years, and he said that he has become more aware over that time. Someone that’s blind can’t flag down a bus, and if you’re deaf, the L.E.D. display on the S.C.A.T. buses might not always work.
“Even from my vantage point here, I still don’t realize certain things that are out of compliance because I don’t use them,” Krotchinsky said.
Krotschinsky notes that most people on Long Island drive. Over two million driver licenses were on file at the end of 2016, and he feels driving is a great asset to people with and without disabilities due to the sense of freedom it gives, and public transportation can be invaluable to those with disabilities who can’t drive. However, major setbacks persist.
“On the other hand, if the bus route is inconveniently far away, they [able-bodied people] can always jump into their car or they can take a bicycle,” Krotschinsky said.
S.C.A.T. riders have pushed for run times extending to 10:00 p.m. However, this would cost the county an extra $400,000, which could leave disabled riders waiting indefinitely for better service.
“Paul and I have asked – we met with Congressman Zeldin – we have met with Senator Croci, Senator Boyle, I send emails to the assembly people who are on transportation. We’re constantly, constantly asking,” Tucci said.
Another key aspect of anyone’s life involves their line of work, something those with disabilities struggle with, considering the fact that many employers ask for a driver’s license when applying for a position, which some see as a form of responsibility
“Cause then they start wondering ‘oh, are they gonna get to this meeting, are they gonna be able to meet this client in time, close this deal,” an anonymous source who takes the bus and Uber to get around, and holds a managerial position in marketing out of fear of professional consequences, said.
The person said they’d “definitely” be disregarded as reliable, despite the fact they get to where they need to go via bus or train.
“I tried finding a lawyer to sue the county just to bring awareness to this issue: that by not providing adequate public transportation that they’re negligent in their own constitution.” the worker in marketing said.
Islip resident, Donald Lee Warner, who worked for Pilgrim Psychiatric Center for a decade, ended up retiring and going on disability after his knees gave out, has had the experience of being passed up by employers.
“Never mind whether you can get there by bus or train,” Warner said. “No car, no job.”
Warner, 60, feels content at this point in his life, but would hate to see someone fall into the same category as he, where “you can’t get a job because you can’t drive or are disabled.”
“It’s discrimination,” Tucci said echoing Paul Pressman’s remarks of not enough money in the system, and when asked if they see improvement in the foreseeable future, both responded with a resounding “no.”