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Disability advocates raise safety, accessibility concerns with Cap Metro board

Wednesday, August 2, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

A member of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Access Advisory Committee is calling for monthly safety briefings from the board after the organization failed to address multiple instances of sexual harassment on the part of a MetroAccess driver.

Audrea Diaz was appointed to the committee in January 2019. She requested the briefings during the board’s citizen communication session at its regular meeting on July 24.

“In these safety briefings, I would like to ask what is being done on a regular basis to enforce policy and training and to ensure that MetroAccess is becoming a safe space – which I was told is an initiative that Cap Metro is working on,” Diaz said.

Diaz uses MetroAccess, which is the transit agency’s service providing rides to people with disabilities who are unable to use fixed-route service. She told the board she refused to ride with a driver three separate times because of harassing behavior and stated “multiple times” in official complaints that she would prefer to be paired with another driver.

“After the third time I refused the ride, Cap Metro did tell me I would no longer be paired with this driver, and I haven’t been as of late,” Diaz said, adding that Chad Ballentine, vice president of demand response and innovative mobility, “told me that it’s taking some creative thinking to ensure I won’t be paired with this driver.”

Board Chair Jeffrey Travillion thanked Diaz for her testimony. “We will certainly look deeply into your concerns,” he said.

Diaz wasn’t the only speaker to raise concerns about Capital Metro policy and training at the meeting. One speaker called in to complain that a Capital Metro driver failed to intervene when an intoxicated passenger hurled racist slurs at her and other passengers.

Debra Miller, a mental health and passenger advocate, expressed alarm about what she said is a change in how individuals experiencing homelessness are treated in the bus system overall.

“And that is bus drivers are refusing to load people that they personally feel have no place to go, is what they tell them,” Miller said.

Miller said the instances have occurred when individuals who have been given a bus pass by a hospital or another service provider.

“I personally have been not allowed on the bus, and I’ve also seen other people in similar conditions where the driver says, ‘You can’t get on here because you look like you’re going nowhere,’” Miller said. “And that person has a paid ticket from the hospital. I find that very offensive and unsettling.”

In a statement to the Austin Monitor, Capital Metro said it takes the allegations from Diaz seriously. “We are thankful these allegations were immediately brought to our attention,” the statement reads. “After speaking with our customer, our team thoroughly investigated the situation, and worked to ensure she would be paired with operators with whom she is comfortable.”

According to the statement, staff members continue to seek feedback in order to help develop a more “in-depth” sensitivity training for all MetroAccess operators. “We have also provided additional coaching to our operators and addressed what is and is not appropriate to say to any customer. It’s important to our agency that all our customers feel safe on our vehicles, and we welcome any and all feedback from them to learn how we can improve, as well as better train our operators to be vigilant on behalf of our CapMetro Access customers,” the statement reads.

In response to the allegations that unhoused individuals have been turned away with valid bus passes, the spokesperson clarified it is against policy for anyone with a valid ticket or who is seeking a ride to a city cooling center to be refused a ride.

“Anyone seeking a cooling center and does not have the means to pay the fare will still be given a ride, and our operators are aware of that initiative,” the statement reads. “After speaking to the customer who raised the allegations at July’s Board Meeting, staff is still looking into her claim, but nothing is more important than safely serving our community.”

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