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Airport commute difficult for those using wheelchairs

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

The problem of a stranded tourist at the airport recently exposed an “embarrassing shortcoming” in the local transportation network, city officials acknowledged Tuesday at a City Council meeting.

The visitor had no way to get from the Durango-La Plata County Airport to town because none of the commercial transportation vans was accessible to the visitor’s motorized wheelchair, said Lars Enggren, who organized a caravan of a car and a truck with a trailer to bring the visitor to town after getting a distress call from the tourist’s cousin.

Art Olson, president of Durango Transportation Inc., which is licensed through the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, responded in a telephone interview Wednesday that his company can accommodate someone in a wheelchair, but he said the ride will take longer and cost more because a ramp will have to be provided and seats will have to be removed to make room.

Because of the extra time involved and the fact the van can accommodate fewer passengers, Olson said a disabled person would be charged $72 for a ride from the airport compared to the regular $25 for a passenger who does not need the same considerations.

“Special needs require special services,” Olson said.

Enggren tells a different story, saying the visitor could not get any help after making calls to local transportation companies before he arrived in Durango.

He spent his vacation worrying about how he would get back to the airport for his flight home, said Enggren, who ultimately arranged for the Adaptive Sports Association to give him a ride to the airport.

Enggren, who serves on the boards of Adaptive Sports and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Southwest Colorado, said he was offended that many transportation companies told him to have the visitor stay at the DoubleTree Hotel because it has an accessible van.

“Really, that’s the answer? You have to stay at the DoubleTree? It seems like a monopoly to me,” Enggren said.

During the vacation, the visitor enjoyed a trip on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has a wheelchair lift.

“I jokingly said at the airport meeting, ‘Do you think you can get the train to go out to the airport?” said Enggren, who also attended the Tuesday meeting of the Durango-La Plata Airport Commission.

Enggren said the Public Utilities Commission should require transportation companies to be accessible, but Terry Boty, a PUC spokesman, said taxis, vans and limousines are exempt from the wheelchair requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Neither state statutes nor regulations require more than what’s in the federal law,” Boty said.

“As far as I know, the issue has never been brought to the commission, but cost would probably be a key consideration, especially for smaller carriers,”’ Boty said. “These carriers already operate on pretty thin margins of profitability. By imposing additional cost burdens, you run the risk of running carriers out of business and losing service altogether.”

John Nadolny, owner of Animas Transportation, estimated that a wheelchair-accessible van costs about $85,000. The additional costs of the liability insurance will make “your eyes water,” he added.

“There’s not much (business) to justify it,” Nadolny said.

Animas Transportation, however, can accommodate someone who can transfer from a wheelchair to a van seat and whose wheelchair is collapsible and easily stored in back of the van.

“If they’re wheelchair-bound and need a lift or a ramp assist, we don’t have access to that,” said Nadolny, who is a member of the airport commission.

The city does not provide public transportation to the airport because it’s prohibitively expensive, costing an estimated $200,000 a year to extend service for a handicapped-accessible bus that now runs to Mercy Regional Medical Center.

There are the logistical problems of providing a route service to an airport 16 miles outside of town and making the bus service convenient to flight schedules, which also are prone to cancellations and delays, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc.

Because public transportation is heavily subsidized by the federal government, the money comes with “strings attached.” Finding a possible solution is complicated by federal regulations, too, LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc cast some of the blame on Washington, D.C.

“To the degree Congress is dysfunctional and showing no leadership, we suffer at the local level,” he said. “We haven’t had a highway bill in several years. We’ve had to cancel an airport construction project that was in progress because Congress couldn’t agree to a continuing resolution. Now, we have situations that should be pretty simple to solve.”

LeBlanc said the solution might involve the Durango Area Tourism Office, which could offer suggestions to visitors needing transportation from the airport.

“The city wants to welcome people with disabilities in a better way,” LeBlanc said.


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