Bee Investigator: Mom of disabled adult daughter asks why old Storer buses aren't replaced

11/10/2013 6:21 PM

11/11/2013 10:40 AM

Mary Meusburger of Modesto had a question about the Storer buses used to transport her severely disabled adult daughter, Katie.

“She’s been riding Storer buses since she was 3 years old,” Mary said. “The little orange buses used for the elementary students are new and replaced frequently. The buses for the adults have not been replaced in the 10 years my daughter has been riding them. In fact, some of the buses used in Stanislaus County are the old ones from San Joaquin County and still have the SJ number on them.

“The buses frequently break down, the air conditioning does not work well, and one of the buses had such a bad oil leak, it left a huge oil slick on the street in front of my house. Can you find out why our county only gets the old buses from San Joaquin County and when, if ever, we will get new buses for these very vulnerable (and sometimes medically fragile) citizens? They deserve better.”

I first started with county officials and found out that this is not a county program and they have nothing to do with the buses. Eunice Lovie, transit manager for the Stanislaus County Department of Public Works, kindly steered me to Steven Fernandes, vice president of Storer Transportation.

I passed on Mary’s question to him without using her name and asked him to comment. Here’s what he said:

“I can assure you that we do not utilize buses that leave oil slicks, have nonfunctioning air conditioning or frequently break down.” He added that the buses are “used interchangeably between the two counties” under contract with the Valley Mountain Regional Center. So that part of Mary’s comments, that Stanislaus County is using old buses from San Joaquin County, isn’t accurate.

When I called her with the rest of Fernandes’ comments, she laughed.

“That’s what it’s been like for years when I’ve complained,” she said. “It goes nowhere.”

And, she said, he’s wrong about the condition of the buses.

“They do have buses that break down,” she said. “Last Monday or Tuesday, Katie’s bus was late. The starter broke down and the driver had to get another bus. They do have frequent breakdowns. She’s coming home on a school bus right now because her bus isn’t working.

“There was no air conditioning and the drivers were opening windows, and that’s hard on these people.”

I drove out to United Cerebral Palsy in north Modesto, where Katie and other disabled adults are dropped off each day. Some buses looked just fine; others looked shabby. It was a cool morning, so there was no need for air conditioning.

I called Fernandes again ... and again and again. I emailed him a few times. I wanted to know how many disabled adults the bus company carries to various places, how old the buses were and what agencies, including VMRC, contract with Storer to provide this service. I told him I had a deadline to meet, and – although I didn’t tell him this – I had, in fact, held this column for a week to try once more to reach him.

Let me insert a brief note here to say I’ve ridden on Storer buses several times, and never had a complaint. And I don’t expect folks to drop everything they’re doing to talk to me. But really, no response to a few questions? How sad! Especially when you consider the history of the company.

Those who have used Storer buses for field trips or to go gambling – pardon me, gaming – might not know that the bus company was originally founded to provide transportation for handicapped children. This is what it says on the company’s website (www.storercoachways.com):

“In 1952, Storer Transportation Service was founded because there was a need for transportation services for the newly developed Special Education programs being developed for children throughout Stanislaus County. Walter and Gladys Storer submitted a bid to transport 13 physically handicapped children from their residences to the Washington School site. The contract was for the period of one calendar school year. Shortly thereafter, STS was contracted to transport the mentally disabled to the old Prescott School site. In subsequent years, the addition of the visually- and hearing-impaired students were also transported as part of this contract.

“Walter Storer and his son, Warren, were pioneers in the development of the door-to-door school bus service for handicapped students. ... In 1967, Warren Storer modified one of STS’s vans by installing an electric, hydraulic lift onto the rear of the van and thus created the first wheelchair bus in California.”

It says that today, Storer operates about 350 vehicles and employs more than 500 people.

The business is now far more extensive than transporting a few disabled children, but that remains an important part of its business. The website says, “Still maintaining a major focus on special needs transportation, Storer continues to operate a large fleet of school buses along with Dial-A-Ride contract services.”

And it’s still a family-run business, with Donald Storer overseeing all of the Storer companies. He was out of the office on Friday as I was trying to get more information. I hope he gives his vice president a tongue-lashing with a wet noodle for failing to respond to The Bee’s questions.

And I hope he personally makes sure a new, reliable bus will soon pick up Katie and other disabled adults like her. She is one reason for his company’s success and deserves the best equipment possible. I’ve had a few short stints in a wheelchair, and it’s not easy to get around. Having reliable transportation, comfortable buses and smooth-working lifts would help Katie enormously, and give Mary a reason to be thankful this Thanksgiving as well. It’s the right thing to do.

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