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2 Wheelchair Users Faced A $25,000 Fee To Travel On Amtrak

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A one-way ticket on the Amtrak train from Chicago to Bloomington, Ill., costs $16 - unless you're the two people who use wheelchairs who were told their tickets would cost not $16, but $25,000. Yeah. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Adam Ballard saw that $25000 charge, and he couldn't believe it.

ADAM BALLARD: I thought it must be a mistake. That's the price of a car. How can that be possible? So I was sure it was a mistake, but I've seen it in writing, so I know it's not.

SHAPIRO: We met Ballard at Union Station in Chicago, where he gets the train.

BALLARD: I use a power wheelchair. It's standard size for a power wheelchair, but it's still larger than most manual chairs. So I take up a little extra space. But always in the past, no matter what kind of assortment of people and devices we had together for our group, it was never a problem to get everybody onboard.

SHAPIRO: Ballard works for a disability service and advocacy center in Chicago called Access Living. He's their transportation policy director. A group from his office is headed to Bloomington, Ill., next Wednesday for a retreat. There are 10 of them, and five use wheelchairs. Their train has three cars. Each car has one space for a wheelchair. So three spaces, five people in wheelchairs.

In the past, when Access Living gave advance notice that it was sending a large group, Amtrak just took out more seats to fit more wheelchairs. Once it took out seats in the dining car and charged a few hundred dollars extra, but not this time. On December 30, an Amtrak agent for group sales based in Philadelphia wrote, I received a cost regarding the removal of seats, and I've been advised this will be over 25k. Would you like me to proceed with the request?

Someone from the disability group wrote back, am I reading this correctly? The answer came back, the cost is correct. The agents cited a new policy for taking out those seats. She explained it's expensive to take out extra seats, that it means taking a car out of service.

JONATHAN MOOK: The 25,000 seems to be - that's a Hobson's choice. You know, it's no choice at all. Obviously, the group can't pay $25,000.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan Mook is an attorney who advises companies about their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was pretty surprised by that $25,000 figure. A business isn't required to make an accommodation that causes an undue burden. Mook says that's mostly a protection for small businesses. But even if it really costs Amtrak $25,000 to take a train car out of service and to pull up the seats, Mook says...

MOOK: That doesn't end the story. The public accommodation...

SHAPIRO: That would be Amtrak.

MOOK: ...Has to reach out and say, well, let's talk about some alternatives here. What can we devise?

SHAPIRO: Like Amtrak did in the past. I contacted Amtrak several times. A spokeswoman referred me to a page on Amtrak's website. It doesn't mention a new policy for people with disabilities or pulling up seats. At the top of the page, it says, Amtrak is happy to provide accessible transportation to all of our guests. In fact, many wheelchair users, like Adam Ballard, prefer trains to buses and airplanes.

BALLARD: We've looked at other options like buses, and it just - nothing compares to Amtrak.

SHAPIRO: On the train, Ballard can stay in his wheelchair instead of checking it like luggage and then worrying that an expensive piece of equipment crucial to his mobility will be damaged. Ballard still plans to go to the meeting next week. Access Living is using one of its vans to take him and a colleague. The other eight people in the group will buy those 16-hour one-way tickets on the train. For $25,000, they could buy more than 1,500 tickets.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.