Days after the Law for Equal Opportunities for People with Disabilities reached its 10th anniversary Monday, more than a dozen bus companies failed in their bid to prevent the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) from fining buses without wheelchair ramps.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) rejected Wednesday the first of 14 lawsuits filed by bus companies against MOPT. The rejection of the other suits, which are identical, is likely, Sandra Castro, a spokeswoman for the Sala IV, said yesterday.
The rejection of the first case allows MOPT to begin fining buses that do not meet the accessibility requirements of the equal-access law. Transit police began handing out fines yesterday morning in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on Paseo Colón in San José.
Buses without wheelchair ramps will be given ¢30,000 ($60) fines and three months to install wheelchair ramps. If they do not comply in that time, MOPT can take them out of circulation. Buses without accessibility provisions such as non-slip floors and sonorous stop signals will be fined ¢10,000, said Fitsroy Villalobos, a spokesman for MOPT.
Orlando Ramírez, owner of the CESMAG bus company, said it will be “totally, completely impossible” to install ramps in all of his buses in the next three months. He said it would take at least 90 days to import ramps from China, and he does not know what kind of ramps could be fitted to old buses.
Of CESMAG’s 113 buses, 14 of the new ones have factory-attached wheelchair ramps, Ramírez said.
His company did not make more modifications during the years allotted by the equal-access law because “we didn’t have the specific rules that specified what kind of ramp and how many ramps” companies had to have, and because the previous transportation minister had agreed to let bus companies add ramps gradually, he said.
Ramírez said fining companies like his won’t lead to equality because “forcing compliance for 2% of the people will leave 98% of the people without service.”
Andrea Vargas, 29, who was paralyzed at birth because of cerebral palsy, said this argument is one of many bus company owners use as scare tactics.
“The company owners have a ton of stupid arguments … they had 10 years to do it little by little and now they are out of time and they go ‘poor us’,” she said.
Unable to find a local bus that can handle her wheelchair,Vargas, an English major at the University of Costa Rica east of San José, must take a taxi whenever she has to travel.
Each time Vargas takes a taxi from her home in Moravia, north of the capital, to the university, it costs her about ¢3,000 ($6) roundtrip – 10 times what the bus fare cost, she said. Traveling for recreation is prohibitively expensive.
Vargas is among handicapped advocates who have been fighting for more wheelchair ramps. She filed a lawsuit before the Sala IV in 2004 against a bus company in Moravia, but said the suit has not made much headway.
Vargas said she first rode a bus with a wheelchair ramp when she visited the U.S. city of San Francisco, and in a phone interview with The Tico Times this week, her voice faltered as she described the experience.
“I changed into a person without a disability. I didn’t feel my disability as a problem, but in Costa Rica I do,” she said.
Ramírez, explaining why more ramps were not installed sooner, said the high court only recently ruled that all public buses had to have wheelchair ramps.
The equal-access law, approved May 29, 1996, states that “the means of collective transportation must be completely accessible and adequate to the needs of people with disabilities … in a maximum of seven years.”
That period expired in 2003; MOPT then decided to provide a three-year grace period.
Today, 8-12% of buses have the required ramps, said Viviana Martín, Vice-Minister of Transportation. She said buses complied with other accessibility requirements, such as installing non-slip floors and sonorous stop signals, by the law’s 2003 deadline.
MOPT has been criticized for not forcing bus companies to install wheelchair ramps earlier.
Bárbara Holst, executive director of the National Council for Rehabilitation and Special Education, used MOPT as an example of a ministry that has not lived up to its responsibility.
And Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Lesvia Villalobos said bus companies should already be in compliance with the law.
“Ten years seems to me like a satisfactory amount of time,” she said.
In a statement Monday, Vice-Minister Martín cautioned that wheelchair ramp installation would cost more than ¢4 million (about $8,000) per bus, and require bus fares to increase by an estimated 300%. Fare increases should be instituted “progressively,” she said.
After years of waiting for bus companies to install more ramps, student Vargas isn’t sure that MOPT’s stance will have the desired effect.
“I believe they are trying but … I’ll have to see (the bus companies) pay the fines,” she said.