DIA and several of its individual members entered into a settlement agreement with the City of New York and Green Bus Lines in April of 2005. The agreement was reached less than one year after DIA and its individual members filed a federal lawsuit against the City of New York and Green Bus Lines.
The lawsuit alleged that Green Bus Lines routinely discriminated against DIA members and the plaintiffs by refusing to pick up passengers who use wheelchairs and by operating a fleet of buses that are extremely old and subject to frequent lift breakdowns.
The City of New York was sued because it owned the buses and contracted with Green Bus Lines to provide the fixed route bus service. For about two to three years before the lawsuit, the City of New York also sat on tens of millions of dollars in mass transit monies it obtained from the federal government to buy new buses. Although the City would not admit it, the plaintiffs believed that the City wanted to use the monies to sweeten the deal it wanted to make with the MTA to take over Green Bus Lines and the other private franchise bus lines which also contracted with the City Department of Transportation.
It would be routine for three to four buses to pass by an individual who uses a wheelchair before an accessible bus picked them up. This problem was greatly compounded in bad weather. This problem demoralized riders who used wheelchairs and hurt their ability to get to work, school and to necessary medical treatment.
The agreement provided for a number of changes:
Green Bus Lines has begun replacing lifts on a small class of buses built after the effective date of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Green Bus Lines resolved a funding dispute with the City that held back necessary repairs to the buses, including the lifts.
Green Bus Lines changed the way it reported lift problems, whether they be from a malfunctioning lift to a refusal by a bus driver to engage the lift or stop the bus for a passenger using a wheelchair.
Green Bus Lines hired additional permanent employees to perform repairs on lifts.
Green Bus Lines implemented a policy to perform more rigorous inspections of its lifts.
Green Bus Lines served written notice on its bus drivers of stepped up disciplinary actions for unfounded refusals to pick up passengers who use wheelchairs.
The buses that Green operates are so old that these changes may not be able to prevent a substantial number of lifts from failing while in service. One of the reasons for this is that the majority of the buses are 1985 and 1986 GMC buses with lifts that were made at a time when more people used lighter manual wheelchairs. The lifts on these buses break down much more frequently now because they were not designed for the heavier chairs now commonly in use.
Unfortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act did not require private or public bus companies to buy new buses in order to make their service accessible to riders who use wheelchairs. It merely required them to buy accessible buses when they replaced the buses at the end of their life.
For this reason, the plaintiffs could not use the ADA to force the City or Green Bus Lines to replace the old pre-ADA buses with new buses. The ADA only allowed the plaintiffs to force the City and Green Bus Lines to repair the buses promptly and to replace lifts on the smaller percentage of buses purchased after the effective date of the ADA that had chronic, defective lifts.
This case may have put pressure on the City to move faster with its negotiations to replace Green Bus Lines and the other private franchise lines with the MTA. The City also released for expenditure the millions of dollars to be spent on new buses that it sat on for so long. These buses will take up to two years to make and come into use.
The future looks brighter for Queens County residents who use wheelchairs and ride public buses. Until these new buses come into use there will continue to be inevitable problems due to the age of so many of the buses used by Green Bus Lines and the other private franchise bus lines and due to those bus drivers who are prejudiced and recalcitrant.
This article was written by Martin J. Coleman, the attorney for DIA and the individual plaintiffs in this case.