The Jackson City Council may approve an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on making city buses more accessible to the disabled at its 6 p.m. meeting tonight.
The consent decree contains requirements for the city to install wheelchair lifts and ramps on its working fleet of JATRAN buses and finance a coordinator to make sure the city is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decree is the culmination of a 2008 suit filed by Jackson resident Scott Crawford, the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, and Disability Rights Mississippi.
City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen said the Justice Department suggested the city pay up to $140,000 over the next three years to finance the ADA coordinator. If the city agrees to that amount, the money would qualify as monitoring fees, and would come out of the city's budget.
"The city has yet to determine where in the budget the money will come," Teeuwissen said, adding that he hoped all the city's buses would soon be ADA compliant. "As long as the buses are running we need to be ADA compliant."
City spokesman Chris Mims pointed out that the city recently purchased 16 new buses, financed primarily through federal grants, which already feature handi-lift hardware, bringing them into ADA compliance. Mims said the city would have to upgrade some older buses with handi-lifts, however, but could not provide the cost of the upgrades at this point.
The Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities launched the suit after months of petitioning the city about the city's lack of ADA-compliant buses. Ward 1 Councilman Jeff Weill countered that the city's transit system is underused and costly, amounting to a $7 million drain on the city budget for buses that he describes as "carrying three or four people at any given time."
Weill and some council members toyed with the notion during the last budget cycle of downgrading the mass transit system to a smaller fleet of less expensive vans.
"I think even if we provided taxis to everybody using the buses, it would still be cheaper than paying for JATRAN," Weill said.
After months of battle between the city and advocates for the disabled, Teeuwissen said the Justice Department appeared pleased with the city's agreement. "The federal government seems happy with where the negotiations have gone, but I can't speak for the private plaintiffs," he said.
Mary Troupe, executive director of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities said she is happy with the decree.
"We're excited about getting an agreement and hopefully getting the buses back on track," Troupe said, "This is something that's been going on for many, many years, under different administrations, and we're hopeful we'll be seeing some changes.
Troupe said she wanted to help the city promote JATRAN to disabled and non-disabled alike in an effort to drum up bus revenues.