The first time Phil Pangrazio tried to scoot onto a bus in his motorized wheelchair, he made a rookie mistake that could have ended his life.
Pangrazio rode forward onto the bus lift, not knowing he should have backed in to properly distribute the heavy wheelchair's weight. When the bus driver raised the lift, Pangrazio tilted perilously.
"I had to tell the driver, ‘Stop! Stop! I'm going to flip off here backwards,'" he said. "I could have been killed. I could have been injured really bad."
Transit users like Pangrazio can get help learning to safely navigate buses and light rail on March 1, when Valley Metro opens a Mobility Center to train and evaluate the disabled.
It should also help cash-strapped cities preserve Dial-a-Ride for the most disabled by training more able commuters to use the bus more often. That's critical to Mesa, where Vice Mayor Scott Somers said an unknown level of transit cuts are in the works and that Dial-a-Ride is especially vulnerable.
Some of those transit users could use the bus some or all of the time if they had more training, he said. Dial-a-Ride costs transit agencies $36.79 per ride in the Valley, compared with $3.50 per bus trip and $2.72 for light rail.
"The more we can continue to transfer people from Dial-a-Ride to programs like this, the more money we have left to provide service for people who most need Dial-a-Ride," Somers said.
Mesa is required by federal rules to provide Dial-a-Ride within 3/4-mile of any bus route, but it provides service to the entire city. That leaves areas east of Sossaman Road and some other pockets as places where Mesa could ax service to slash it spending. Mesa doesn't want to do that, Somers said, and is counting on lowered Dial-a-Ride costs to serve the entire city.
The $l.2 million Mobility Center includes a full-sized bus people can practice boarding, as well as the kind of steps, ramps, brick pavers, crosswalks and other terrain that disabled commuters would encounter on a trip. The real-world setting is meant to evaluate whether disabled people are eligible for subsidized transit, as well as make them comfortable on the streets.
The center has been contemplated since at least 1998 and is one of perhaps only 10 in the nation. On the light rail line at 4600 E. Washington St. in Phoenix, it's expected to evaluate up to 500 disabled transit users a month. Disabled people have previously had to apply for eligibility by filling out a form, said Shana Ellis, a Tempe councilwoman and chair of Valley Metro's board of directors. But they can now be evaluated in person for greater accuracy and to ensure circumstances are weighed on a case-by-case basis, she said.
Pangrazio, who is the executive director of the Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, said the center will make the disabled more comfortable using transit. That could make them more mobile.
"Sometimes we don't really think about it, but there is a great deal of fear in using the public transportation system, fear of the unknown," he said.