CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Channel 9 learned the city of Charlotte spent millions on buses for people with disabilities -- without getting their input.
The buses were ADA compliant, but still put some riders in danger and cost the city thousands of dollars in upgrades.
Anchor Brittney Johnson spoke with those affected and dug into the changes advocates are pushing for.
Getting around isn't as easy as it used to be for Charlie Moore. Six years ago, a neurological disorder weakened his hands and balance, and his doctor asked him not to drive unless it's a dire emergency.
Moore relies on Special Transportation Service (STS), operated by Charlotte Area Transit Authority (CATS). More than 3,300 riders with disabilities pay for and use the service.
"Without them, I would be in a pickle," said Moore.
Moore told Channel 9 STS has been his lifeline. Drivers take him shopping and to medical appointments.
But when CATs rolled out new buses in 2017, Moore said it compromised his safety. CATS purchased 38 new STS buses for more than $95,000 each, and a total of roughly $3.6 million.
Through email, a spokesperson told Eyewitness News the new Arboc buses offer a smoother ride and meet guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But Moore and advocates for people with disabilities said the new buses force riders to make their way up ramps instead of being brought onto the bus with a lift. They said the buses have rivets to guide wheelchairs that can be a tripping hazard, and the bus ramps did not come equipped with handrails.
"I've already fallen once on the new ramp because they don’t have the proper handrails," Moore said.
He sent letters and CATS worked with him to add handrails to two of the buses, but not the 36 others. He took his concerns about the buses and treatment of riders to City Council.
"It's almost as if all the other things CATS has to do, the handicapped community are invisible," Moore said to the council and mayor in November.
Eyewitness News connected Moore with Julia Sain, the executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights & Resources.
"People with disabilities who live here should be able to expect their rights are protected," said Sain.
Sain told Channel 9 that soon after CATS spent millions on the new buses, she started hearing from riders who were scared they would fall or trip due to the new bus features.
She said CATS failed to get their feedback before making the switch, "which is kind of not a good idea."
CATS declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview but emailed Eyewitness News that it has received 10 formal complaints about the buses since they went into service.
As a result, the agency has made several changes. It's removed equipment to soften the slope, added anti-slip material and installed handrails on all 38 vehicles, costing about $160 per handrail.
Sain said the frustration could have been avoided.
"They didn't do it right the first time and they've had to go back and retrofit,” Sain said. “There you go, that was a choice you made. And the next time why don't you bring out a prototype and let people understand."
Terry Bradley is the city's ADA compliance director. He told Channel 9 the city is working to make sure all departments are ADA compliant, and they're trying to shift the culture.
"The services the City of Charlotte provides, everyone should have access to,” Bradley said. “If we just have one person not have access to something, we have a problem."
Moore hopes that moving forward, all city departments will do their homework and seek input from impacted communities before spending millions of dollars on plans that don't include everyone.
"They are spending tax dollars, I should have a say into how my funds are spent if it affects my safety," said Moore.
CATS said it welcomes feedback from riders. Currently, the City of Charlotte is working with consultants on an 18-month comprehensive ADA compliance review of all if its departments.
If you would like to connect with advocates or learn more about addressing accessibility issues, you can contact Disability Rights & Resources and attend monthly meetings for local advocacy councils, including the Mecklenburg Advocacy Council for People with Disabilities.
Cox Media Group