Cynthia Barram glides her electric wheelchair down the cement path from her apartment in time to see the white Amblicab van cutting through the thick fog and rain.
It's Tuesday morning, one of the two days a week Barram has the pleasure of leaving her home.
When the city cut bus routes recently, paratransit services for the disabled were cut along with them. That left approximately 125 people with disabilities, including Barram, without any public service to shuttle them to work, school, doctor's appointments and grocery stores. The services stopped April 5.
City Councilor Jerry Heimlicher, along with Vice Mayor Larry Small, is now working to restore services for some of the disabled people left stranded by the cuts. Heimlicher thinks the city should use more than $250,000 of the approximately $1.2 million gained when voters allowed the city to keep a TABOR surplus in the April municipal election to "grandfather in" residents like Barram — at least for a year.
Heimlicher also is hoping U.S. Sen. Mark Udall can help the city find federal funds to keep a bus route operational on Fort Carson. That route shuttles some disabled veterans to work and doctor's appointments, but it's now scheduled for termination in July. Council will discuss the possibilities in May.
"My attitude is, we've got to do what we can do to help these people," Heimlicher says.
'The only choice'
Transit cuts almost spelled the end of 24-year-old Barram's college education. A junior and English major at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Barram used to love spending extra time on campus — planning events and club activities, doing research at the library, socializing. Now, she can barely make it to her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays before hurrying to catch her ride home.
"My personal interaction has gone down to about absolute zero," she says. "I've gone stir-crazy."
Earlier in the year, Barram took a bus to City Hall to talk to the city leaders before they made the decision that would change her life. Councilors seemed stricken while listening to her plea to save the buses and keep her in school.
"None of us like doing what we are going to have to do today," Mayor Lionel Rivera said at the time.
When they made the cuts, Council members promised Barram they would help her find an alternative.
It was Small who put Barram in touch with Amblicab, a government- and community-subsidized transportation service for those with disabilities that is run through the Pikes Peak Partnership. In exchange for rides back and forth to school, Barram has to pay a $3 fare each way and reserve rides two weeks in advance. She can't be out past 4:30 p.m.
Lynn Hopeman, CEO of Pikes Peak Partnership, says her agency has been flooded with calls. Generally, she says, Amblicab just doesn't have the budget or the staffing to bring disabled people anywhere but to the doctor.
"We're the only choice," she says. "And we didn't get any extra funding when this happened."
Hopeman says the cuts are depressing because transportation is the No. 1 need for the disabled. After working for much of her life to bring independence to people with disabilities, Hopeman says she's discouraged to see transit cuts set progress back "about 40 years."
Dangers of isolation
For many, the only alternative to buses is to rely on friends or family, or to move. But that last option is challenging.
Barram is hoping to move to an apartment near a bus route, but first her parents will need to shell out thousands from their retirement account to make a rental handicapped-accessible. Barram hasn't been able to find one that accommodates her wheelchair.
Her neighbor, 44-year-old UCCS senior Greg Buchanan, is experiencing similar difficulties. Like Barram, he uses a wheelchair. And now he, too, uses Amblicab to get to class — except for a night class that he now has to complete online. He graduates in May with a political science degree.
"Councilman Heimlicher is the one that arranged the Amblicab for me," he says. "But as far as getting the bus reinstated, there's no luck."
Andrea Archer, of the Colorado Springs Independence Center, says she's worried that disabled people will be completely isolated and suffer emotionally and spiritually.
"If they are home-bound, what's going to happen to them at the holistic level?" Archer asks.
A public meeting will be held at 1 p.m., May 22 at the Independence Center to allow transit users with disabilities to talk with Council about their needs. Heimlicher and fellow Councilors Jan Martin and Bernie Herpin plan to attend.