HARLEM — Select Bus Service is rolling out on the M60's route down 125th Street this month, drawing praise from transit advocates and riders as a way to speed up the trek across Harlem's main thoroughfare.
But some advocates for the disabled say the express bus service will only make their lives more difficult.
Sitting in their wheelchairs at a future SBS stop at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, Martin Baez, a community liaison for Rep. Charles Rangel, and Brendan Costello, an adjunct English professor at City College who hosts a radio show on WBAI, both saw flaws in the setup.
Baez, 42, who was born with spina bifida, had to roll his wheelchair around the back of the curbside terminals used to pay for the SBS because a tree guard blocked his way. The MetroCard payment system faces the street and left Baez feeling vulnerable to being knocked into the street, he said.
Costello, 44, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, wondered how he would access the terminal if it was actually a busy rush hour and was concerned that fewer stops would make the already-jammed buses to LaGuardia Airport even more crowded.
"This is about equal opportunity," Baez said.
State Sen. Bill Perkins wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation asking them to address the concerns about the off-board payment setup and other issues facing the disabled.
"This service is also designed for the handicapped so their point of view should be heard," Perkins said.
The issue is the latest wrinkle in the two-year effort to bring SBS service to 125th Street and the notoriously slow M60.
After a year of meetings and walking tours, the MTA and Department of Transportation unveiled a plan that was quickly derided by Community Board 10 for ignoring the concerns of locals in favor of airport travelers.
The MTA and DOT went back to the drawing board and came up with a reduced plan that still faced opposition from community groups and Perkins. Feeling that they could not come to a compromise, the MTA and DOT canceled the SBS plans in July before bringing back almost identical plans that Perkins approved.
A harsh winter delayed the launch of the service, which was due to start in April but has now been scheduled to begin on May 25. The line will make six stops on 125th Street and travel in dedicated, camera-enforced bus lanes from Lenox Avenue to Second Avenue.
"They are not thinking about this from a disabled person's perspective," said Julius Tajiddin, founder of the group Preserve Harlem's Legacy. "They are trying to make the bus faster but potentially slowing things down for the disabled."
DOT spokesman Nicholas Mosquera said the agency has received Perkins' letter and plans to meet with him "to discuss any concerns he might have."
The M60 is the most-used bus line on 125th Street. Approximately 9,600 of the 32,000 passengers who use the four bus lines on 125th Street use the M60 for mostly crosstown travel, with only 10 percent going to the airport, according to MTA data.
The bus is at a standstill 60 percent of the time it's on 125th Street. The SBS service could speed the trip from Lexington Avenue to LaGuardia Airport by up to 20 percent, the DOT said.
DOT officials said the off-board fare collection is designed to reduce the amount of time the bus is stopped and has been used on other SBS lines across the city without any complaints from disabled users.
"We don't want to be obstructionists, but we can't be blind to the concerns the handicapped community has raised," Perkins said.
Baez and Costello both said they are not surprised by the official response.
"They are not taking the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act seriously, which is equal access to service," said Costello. "People without disabilities can't believe all the extra steps I have to take sometimes to get somewhere."
Baez said the limited bus stops on the M60 SBS will mean that he has to either travel extra blocks along the street or catch another bus to connect with it, which would be difficult, especially if he has luggage.
"These things are a marginal inconvenience for someone who can walk but a major inconvenience for someone in a wheelchair trying to board a bus with luggage," said Baez.
Mosquera said the other three bus routes on 125th Street are "high-frequency" and provide service to all existing local stops.
Baez filed a federal lawsuit last month to stop the implementation of the plan. He said he'd like to see the plan scrapped altogether but in lieu of that he wants local M60 service to remain along with the SBS and something to be done to address the curbside MetroCard payment system.
"This is creating issues that won't be good for someone like me," said Baez.