History of Shared Ride in PA for PWD’s

Essay by John Lorence, Jr. (July 19, 2006)

Congratulations to rural Pennsylvania’s hardworking disability rights advocates for finally securing affordable, accessible transportation in all of our state’s 67 counties!

It took 12 years, two governors and a host of demonstrations and pilot projects. It took Freedom Ride ’95, Rolling Justice 2000, a Philadelphia ADAPT-led protest at PennDOT (big-city Philly ADAPT came out for rural Pennsylvanians in a major way). It took hearings and meetings and reports and studies. And finally it’s here.

Some of you outside of rural Pennsylvania might be wondering why this is a big deal. If you drive or live where there are public buses then transportation — while still not perfect — is an expectation. But in many rural communities, if you can’t drive or afford your own vehicle, you’re completely dependent on others for rides. And if you use a heavy motorized wheelchair … well … you’re stuck.

But that’s no longer going to be true in Pennsylvania, thanks to Gov. Rendell’s newest budget, which expands the existing Persons with Disabilities Rural Transportation Program to the final 16 counties that need it.

Forgive me for reminiscing a bit here, but pushing for rural transportation was a big part of my life for many years. So this news is sweet.

Pennsylvania’s advocates organized brilliant campaigns around this issue:

Freedom Ride ’95 came first. About 200 people with disabilities from rural Pennsylvania squeezed themselves into a tiny hearing room to tell their story. Poring over that testimony is where we got the idea of subsidizing the existing shared-ride system that, previously, was only subsidized for seniors.

It took organizing carpools to PennDOT hearings, like the one in Montoursville where we met the gentle Ida Mae Harrington, who explained to state officials in her soft country accent exactly how it is she keeps her job: “Well, of course I can’t drive because of my eyesight. And because my husband, Maynard, has muscular dystrophy, he can’t get himself out of the van,” she explained. “So he drives me to work and then sits in the van until I’m done.” Maynard, who never talks much, just nodded and glared at the panel. After Harrington spoke, many of us knew rural transportation would become a reality – the moral imperative was overwhelming.

It took trekking and schlepping up the Endless Mountains and down through the Susquehanna Valley as part of Rolling Justice 2000, a series of rallies that began on the same day in Erie, Pittsburgh and Scranton, and wound its way to Harrisburg, where all three strands wove together and struck out to Philadelphia, where Rolling Justice met up with the ADA Torch Relay. During that hot July, innovative local organizers commandeered 18-wheeler flat beds, farm tractors, and even a cow pulling a wheelchair user to demonstrate what it takes for rural Pennsylvanians with disabilities to get a ride. Small-town mayors, county commissioners and state legislators joined in at just about every local event. Many believe Rolling Justice gave the final push necessary to make the program a reality in at least some of our state’s counties. For one month, it felt like our state’s disability community was completely unified toward a common goal.
It took patience and perseverance and optimism.

It took the Transportation Alliance and the Transportation Advocacy Project and the Pa. Developmental Disabilities Council and the Pa. Statewide Independent Living Council and the Pa. Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities and the Grass-roots Advocacy Project and all the CILs and a myriad of independent disability advocacy groups all working in tandem.

And now it’s here: all rural Pennsylvanians with disabilities will now have access to affordable, accessible transportation. Will it be perfect? Nah, no way. Just ask the big city folks about paratransit. But it will be a reality. Justice has finally rolled down Pennsylvania’s mountains like a mighty river — and now affordable, accessible vans will, too.