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Assembly Panel Advances Bill Package to Improve Transportation Equity for Disability Community

(TRENTON) – The Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee on Monday advanced a package of eight bills to address barriers to transportation for people with special needs.

“New Jersey’s transportation system must be inclusive, reliable and accessible to all. For too long, those with special needs have encountered unnecessary and avoidable difficulties,” said Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex), chair of the Transportation Committee and sponsor of several of the bills. “As we look to improve our transportation system, we must be mindful of those with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs. The Transportation Committee has made it a priority to ensure that every person with disabilities has access to safe, reliable transportation. With this bill package, the committee will continue these efforts as we ensure that our transportation network considers all disabilities. I will continue to work to provide our residents with transportation that is reliable and inclusive, providing greater peace of mind to those with special needs and their families.”

The legislative package has been drafted in response to a report by the New Jersey Task Force on Transportation, Mobility, and Support Service Needs of Adults with Autism created under a 2017 law. The task force, chaired by Cecilia Feeley, Ph.D, of the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University, was established following a 2015 study by Rutgers and Autism Family Services of New Jersey.

A bill (A-5334) would require the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT), NJTRANSIT, and the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS) to review infrastructure design practices for highways and public transportation projects, and study nationwide best practices for operating roadway facilities, public transportation services, and mobility programs, to make them more accessible for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental disabilities.

The measure is sponsored by Assembly Democrats Yvonne Lopez, Vince Mazzeo and Sterley Stanley.

“Since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we’ve made great progress in ensuring transportation projects and services are more accessible to people with physical disabilities. The same attention must be given to those with intellectual or developmental disabilities,” said Lopez (D-Middlesex). “Our highways, roadside facilities and mobility programs must be equipped to accommodate the needs of all who rely on them.”

“We stand to learn a great deal from successful autism-friendly transportation models from across the country,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “By studying mobility services that have made a positive impact in the lives of people with disabilities nationwide, we can launch or build upon similar programs to help residents in New Jersey.”

“Accessible transportation is the gateway to work, education and social opportunities,” said Stanley (D-Middlesex). “It’s critical that we design and implement transit projects that have design features conducive to people with autism and other developmental challenges, so that they may take advantage of all opportunities accessible transit can offer.”

Legislation (A-5335) sponsored by Assembly Democrats Chris Tully, Lisa Swain and Valerie Vainieri Huttle, would require NJTRANSIT to expand or modify the routes and hours of bus, paratransit, rail and light rail services to accommodate the mobility needs of those with ASD. NJTRANSIT would be required to receive guidance from people with ASD and their advocates annually to assess whether changes to hours and routes are necessary.

“Many people with developmental disabilities rely on public transportation to go about their day-to-day lives,” said Tully (D-Bergen, Passaic) “Listening to the needs of the disability community will promote greater inclusivity and understanding across transit services.”

“Expanding service hours or making adjustments to bus or rail routes may benefit people with neurodevelopmental differences, particularly those in underserved communities,” said Swain (D-Bergen). “We must explore every opportunity to make our transportation system more equitable.”

“As we look to improve access to transportation, we must be mindful of the needs of those with ASD and developmental disabilities,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “The smallest modifications can go a long way in increasing transportation mobility for our most vulnerable.”

Taking further action to make public transit more accessible, a bill (A-5336) would require the Commissioner of DHS to develop a payment program to provide travel budgets to people with ASD and intellectual or developmental disabilities. The travel budgets would be used to pay for travel on regular bus, rail, and light rail networks, pay-per-ride trips provided through county transportation agencies, transportation network companies and taxi services with drivers that have received Passenger Assistance, Safety, and Sensitivity (PASS) training.

The bill is sponsored by Assembly members Benson, Roy Freiman and Vainieri Huttle.

“It is unfair to think that members of the disability community are constantly relying on expensive ride-share services to get to and from doctors’ appointments,” said Freiman (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset). “Creating payment plan options for various transportation services will give members of the disability community the tools they need to fit the unique demands of their schedules.”

A measure (A-5337) sponsored by Assembly Democrats Annette Chaparro, Benson and Raj Mukherji, would ensure the design requirements for infrastructure improvement projects known as Complete Streets would consider the needs of people with ASD and intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“While a noisy, chaotic street may be merely irritating to some, it can be almost unbearable for people with sensory difficulties. Incorporating design elements like parks, green spaces, and trees to help attenuate acoustics can provide refuge for people with ASD. These are things we must take into account when creating infrastructure projects,” said Chaparro and Mukherji (both D-Hudson). “The purpose of Complete Streets projects is to maximize safe mobility for all, from pedestrians and bicyclists to motorists and transit riders. Our streets should be easy to navigate for people of all abilities and sensitivities, so that everyone may safely enjoy all our communities have to offer.”

Assembly members Benson, Lopez and Andrew Zwicker sponsor legislation (A-5338) to require all transportation research contracts entered into by the New Jersey Transportation Research Center to include a provision to require the consideration of the transportation and mobility needs of residents with physical, sensory, intellectual, and developmental disabilities.

“Too often, transportation research neglects to consider the needs of people with neurodevelopmental differences,” said Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset). “By ensuring our research is mindful of all disabilities and challenges, we can build a more well-rounded and inclusive transportation network.”

Classroom and behind-the-wheel driver education programs would be required to be inclusive of all students, including those with ASD, under a measure (A-5339) sponsored by Assembly members Chaparro, Joann Downey and Benson.

“About one in six children under age 18 have a developmental disability. When learning to drive, these youth may benefit from specialized instruction and curriculums,” said Downey (D-Monmouth). “Creating more inclusive driver education programs will help all students enjoy the independence that comes with a driver’s license.”

To further support people with special needs, a bill (A-5340) would create the Office of Statewide Mobility Manager to provide assistance with transportation services and trip-planning guidance for people of all ages with ASD and intellectual or developmental disabilities, as well as their guardians, families, caregivers, and service providers.

The measure is sponsored by Assembly members Benson, Lopez and John Armato.

“Navigating public transportation can be challenging for residents with special needs, but with the right support and guidance, they are more likely to use and benefit from public transit,” said Armato (D-Atlantic). “The Office of Statewide Mobility Manager would help countless people gain independence by accessing our transportation network.”

Legislation (A-5341) sponsored by Assembly members Lopez, Eric Houghtaling and Benson, would update the 2-1-1 phone system information to include all current modes of public transit and accessibility information.

“New Jersey’s 2-1-1 hotline is a useful resource for information on health and human services. However, the system is very out-of-date as it pertains to public transit. Currently, the system directs people with disabilities to seek out private transit services that may be expensive and not feasible for routine travel,” said Houghtaling (D-Monmouth). “It’s time we update 2-1-1 to reflect all of the accessible public transit options that are available to people with special needs.”

The legislative package now goes to the Assembly Speaker for further review.