Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


TOPS at the bottom

Last year, Monica Vasquez was videotaped crossing six lanes of traffic on Glades Road.  She was not participating in a daredevil reality TV show, nor was she filming an action flick.  She has been blind since birth, and she was simply trying to get to school.

Vasquez, a graduate social work student, is one of 12 FAU students using Transportation Options Paratransit (TOPS) to commute to and from school. TOPS is a transportation system created especially for disabled persons in the Broward County area.

But there’s one problem: Due to a TOPS policy, they cannot drop off students at FAU. They are only allowed to go three-fourths of a mile beyond the last bus stop, and drivers would actually get in trouble for bringing students on campus.

Last year, the drop-off point was Barnes & Noble, leaving students like Vasquez with a 15-minute, four-fifths of a mile journey on foot to school.  And this year, it’s worse.

On Aug. 3, 2009, Donna Benefiel, a legally blind senior education major, called her paratransit ride to inform them that she was ready to be picked up, but TOPS told her they would no longer offer her transportation due to budget cuts.
“Because I live in northwest Broward, it costs them more to bring me north and east, because sometimes they take the Turnpike and drive me right past the school on Glades Road to take me to Mizner Park,” said Benefiel. 

Out of four bus routes in Palm Beach County, TOPS dropped two, one being at Barnes & Noble, which came closest to FAU. Because of the three-fourth-mile rule, students who relied on TOPS were forced to find another way to get to FAU from either Mizner Park or from the intersection of Route 441 and Palmetto Park Road.

According to Michelle Shaw, the coordinator for the notetaking program in the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), former President Frank Brogan received a memo from TOPS informing him of the budget situation.
“My understanding was that the memo stated that the students need to find alternate arrangements and/or it is FAU’s problem,” said Shaw.

On Aug. 12, 2009, Shaw found out that the Handi Van company used by students Roland Mendonca and Zahra Jafaree was going to stop bringing disabled students to FAU at the end of August, only going as far as Mizner Park.

Shaw turned to the interim senior vice president of Financial Affairs & CFO/VP of Finance, Dennis Crudeles, to see if the shuttle bus system could go off campus to pick up the students at Mizner Park.

Shaw was told by Dorothy Russell, the associate vice president of Financial Affairs, that the shuttle couldn’t do it because there was only one bus at the time and it wasn’t equipped for disabled people.

Shaw kept looking for solutions, and after speaking to Gloria Galloway, the outreach manager at Palm Tran Connections, on Aug. 14, 2009, she thought she had finally found one.
“I asked her about the ability of students coming from Broward County to use the Palm Tran Connection,” said Shaw.  “She told me that they could sign up temporarily, fill out an application and turn in documentation, but they would only be allowed 21 trips per year because they are not residents of Palm Beach County.  No exceptions.”

Mendonca finds 21 trips per year not enough. Mendonca, who is in a motorized wheelchair, commutes to FAU on Tuesdays and Thursday, making four trips on the Palm Tran Connection. Being a graduate student in mental health and working in the OSD, he has no idea what to do when his allotted amount of trips run out.
“The real stress comes in when I have to schedule my Broward ride to be in sync with my Palm Beach ride,” said Mendonca.  If he were able to travel straight to school, Mendonca’s journey would only be an hour, but he’s leaving his home at 6:30 a.m. to get to school by 9 a.m. 

According to Mendonca, the Palm Tran tends to run late, and his Broward transportation ride won’t wait for him.
“I spend about two hours total waiting each day,” he added. “There is a five-minute window for Palm Tran.  If you miss the five-minute window, then the drivers have the right to leave. Then you’re stuck, and your only option is to get an alternate ride.”

Disabled student are also finding money to be an issue with the transportation programs.
“The TOPS is $3 each way, and then if you do the Palm Tran, that’s also $3 each way,” explained Shaw.  “[It] would cost students $6 a day, [and] now it’s going to cost [disabled students] $12 a day.  It’s a huge increase for them, and a lot of these people who use it are on supplemental income, like SSI or Disability.”

Donna Benefiel is one student struggling to make ends meet with her increased commuting price.  As a single mother of three children who’s trying to finish her degree to begin teaching, she and her family rely on her disability insurance to help them get by.
“I am taking out $50 to $60 per week for transportation, and that is just for getting to school,” said Benefiel. 

Shaw and Benefiel came up with the idea to slightly increase the cost of the paratransit service in order for it come by FAU twice a day, cutting the trips to Mizner Park.  Shaw said that students would be willing to work their schedules around this.

Shaw and Benefiel hope that their work for the resolution of this issue will pay off in time.  According to Shaw, getting the word out there and involving the community is key.
“We have been to the Boca Raton Advisory Board for the Disabled. [They] gave us a lot of people to call, like different commissioners, senators, state reps and other agencies,” said Shaw. “We are trying to get together a town hall meeting so we can get both the Broward County and the Palm Beach County paratransit together so we can come to a mutual agreement.”

Getting to FAU has certainly been difficult for disabled Broward County students these days, but it’s not stopping Roland Mendonca.  He explained that he will continue his education and his work, no matter what it takes.
“‘He who has a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how,”‘” Mendonca quoted Friedrich Nietzsche, and explained:  “That is my favorite quote from Nietzsche. In my own life, I take it to mean: Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why do I come here? I come because I am employed here; all my classes are here.  And that is what keeps me coming here.  Despite anything that happens, I’ll overcome it.”

For more information on the details of this problem, the students involved, and how you can become a part of the solution, visit www.osd.fau.edu or call OSD at (561) 297-3880.


Would you be able to pay the price? 
A disabled person relying on the transportation system to get them to school faces high prices.

TOPS: $6 per day, $24 per week and $360 per semester (not counting Thanksgiving week)

Palm Tran Connection:  $6 per day, $24 per week and $360 per semester (not counting Thanksgiving week)

Taxi*: $20 per day, $80 per week and $1,200 per semester (not counting Thanksgiving week)

*Taxi fare calculated for a trip from Mizner Park to FAU, and vice versa.  Taxis usually have a flat rate of $2.50, plus $0.33 per one-eighths mile, if you’d like to figure out further distances.


My experience with paratransit 
An end-of-the-day journey with Roland Mendonca, a handicapped student at FAU 

After I heard about the lengthy waits and late arrivals of the paratransit system, I became curious to try it out for myself with Roland Mendonca.

5 p.m. – Mendonca and I waited for the Palm Tran at FAU, which never arrives on time.  “This is why I always bring a good book with me,” he joked.

5:30 p.m. – After a 30-minute wait, we finally boarded the bus that would take us to Mizner Park.

5:40 p.m. – The 10-minute bus ride went fast, but according to Mendonca, it usually has to pick up other passengers, leaving him uncertain if he will arrive at Mizner Park in time for his second ride.

6:30 p.m. – Mendonca’s TOPS ride arrived to take him home to Broward.

7:30 p.m. – Mendonca got to his final destination.

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