Updated 10/24/12 – 1:13 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — The chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority has made a public apology for using the term “limousine service” to describe the agency’s paratransit service for the disabled.

WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports RTA Chairman John Gates told the Daily Herald editorial board Oct. 4 that paratransit is “a limousine service, but it’s a federally mandated limousine service that we have to provide. It’s hugely expensive, but it’s something we have to do. It’s the law. It’s a civil right.”

Since then, the RTA has received a steady series of complaints from riders who use the service.

Marcia Trawinski, a blind paratransit user who was at Wednesday’s RTA board meeting, said Pace paratransit vans are hardly a “limousine service.”

“By no standard is what I use to get from one place to another a limousine service. It is often late, it is a shared ride, it often has poor dispatching, it often has poor tracking, and I am often in a vehicle much longer because I have what we refer to as hostage trips – where we are forced to ride around, even past our destination, until it is actually our turn to be dropped off,” Trawinski said.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody Reports

Gates apologized during the meeting for comparing the paratransit program to a limo service.

Gates said his remark was “off the cuff and thoughtless.

“In my haste, I completely misspoke and I apologize,” he said. “My comments were inappropriate and unfortunately could be misconstrued to suggest bias against the disabled community. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

He said he was using the term limousine service not to imply luxury, but to describe handicapped paratransit as more expensive than street corner bus service.

“I tried to clarify the differing operating dynamics by using a metaphor that compared on-call limousine service to the scheduled transit service,” Gates said.

Gates said he’s especially sensitive to needs of the handicapped since his own father is blind. He also noted that, in the original interview, he said public transit for the handicapped is a civil right.

Disabled riders who attended the meeting said Gates sounded sincere in his apology, but they want to see proof of performance in the way the RTA handles paratransit service in the future.

Paratransit users pay $3 a ride, but the actual cost of the service is many times that. It is budgeted in 2013 at a tentative $136 million.

That’s a huge increase from the $71 million that was budgeted in 2006, when Pace took over from the CTA the obligation to provide paratransit service in the city and immediately adjacent suburbs, where more than 80 percent of paratransit rides take place.

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