Disabled vets declare war on UTA after it cancels bus stops at VA hospital

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Student climbs aboard UTA bus at President's Circle stop at the University of Utah, Aug. 13, 2012.

Leaders of Utah’s disabled veterans essentially declared war Tuesday on the Utah Transit Authority, upset that it canceled bus service through the Salt Lake City veterans’ hospital campus.

UTA argues that it actually improved bus service at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center by adding extra routes nearby with more frequency and new Sunday service. But the agency concedes that disabled veterans now must walk a bit farther to the hospital campus, near the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles football stadium.

“Most of us who are mobility challenged know the value of proximity,” Frank Maughan, commander of the Utah Disabled American Veterans told the state’s Veterans and Military Affairs Commission on Tuesday, seeking it as an ally in the fight.

“If we can get within 10 feet of the entrance to the area in which we will be treated versus three quarters of a mile, even the noninfantry people in the room will understand the difference,” he said.

Maughan asserted that UTA canceled a couple of front-door stops through the campus last August without discussing it with veterans’ groups and after giving hospital personnel just two weeks notice and no ability to change the plan.

Laura Hanson, UTA director of planning, disputed that, saying the agency had six public hearings about changes — after posting notices at the VA bus stops and online. She also said UTA talked with hospital personnel months in advance about proposals. In hindsight, she said, UTA should have made the effort to contact veterans’ groups.

Maughan found some sympathy for his fight with members of the commission, established by the state to look at veterans’ issues.

“The optics are terrible,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. “This is a special place that needs to be treated specially.”

Terry Schow, a commission member who brought up the issue after hearing complaints from disabled veterans, said public transit is the only way for most homeless veterans to reach the hospital and obtain care — and many need closer stops.

Hanson explained UTA’s actions to the commission, after Schow half-joking said, “This nice lady here, poor lady, has to come up and defend that mean, vicious UTA that obviously hates veterans.”

She noted that before changes last August, UTA had only one bus route to the VA medical campus that connected service to downtown and the Avenues. Now, it has four routes on Foothill Drive that connect the VA hospital directly to Millcreek, Sandy, downtown, the Avenues, Midvale, Holladay and Cottonwood Heights. Service is more frequent and, for the first time, runs on Sunday.

She said the old stops in the VA campus were not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but new stops are — and are still only a block or two away from main entrances.

Buses going through the VA campus required a left turn without a light across busy Foothill Boulevard, Hanson said, which created safety concerns and hurt schedule reliability. She added that the trip through the VA campus added time to each bus route that discouraged and delayed riders headed elsewhere.

Steven Allen, a member of the commission who is also a VA psychologist, said changes “look much more efficient for UTA. I think it is not very efficient for veterans,” noting that VA mental health facility patients now must walk several blocks from bus stops.

Hanson said UTA may also look at some interesting long-term solutions, such as using autonomous vehicles to take veterans around the VA campus, or perhaps vans with drivers.

“That doesn't work for today,” Mayne complained, urging a return to bus service within the VA campus.

Maughan vowed to keep fighting for that, including taking his battle to other state, city and UTA officials. He told Hanson, “We hope the message you carry back to the UTA board is that this dog will not hunt. We hope that they will right this wrong.”

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