Transit troubles

For decades, a lack of transportation in Hancock County was identified as the No. 1 unmet need as recognized by social service agencies, medical providers, seniors and especially those individuals needing nonemergency wheelchair transportation.

Since 1978, people’s transportation needs have been provided by Hancock County Senior Services (HCSS). The last decade of expanded transportation services and those who made it happen are to be celebrated.

HCSS, United Way’s Hancock office and the Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce collaborated for a community survey in 2004. The survey confirmed there was a need for expansion of transportation options for county residents. But the INDOT funding would change the existing transportation program from senior residents to residents of any age and from only essential destinations to any destination.

Thus, HCSS expanded transit services in 2005, with Hancock Area Rural Transit to be operated by HCSS.

What have we learned in this past decade for transit service and the residents’ unmet needs?

1. There is a perception that public transportation is large buses in large cities. But public transportation in a rural county uses vans and sedans, which are more appropriate for our client base.

2. Service to seniors has been increased and the variety of destinations expanded. Overall, passenger trips have more than doubled in 10 years.

3. County residents less than 60 years old also have transportation challenges.

4. Local taxi services have continued to be financially unsuccessful in the county.

5. Passengers continue to ask for evening, weekend and same-day service.

6. Requests for transportation to employment continue to rise. There were 4,000 employment trips in 2015.

7. Capacity to serve continues to be limited by funding; thus, service is sometimes denied even to essential destinations.

8. It is not always possible to plan and schedule passenger trips in advance, so more same-day service is needed.

9. A local match of 50 percent is required to utilize potential state and federal funds for the transit system’s operating expenses.

10. A local match of 20 percent is required for acquisition of federal funds for vehicles.

11. 52 percent of passengers are seniors or have disabilities that prevent driving.

12. Of the nearly 20,000 annual trips provided, 44 percent, or 8,700, are for medical destinations with 8,100 to an in-county medical location, giving a large boost to the local economy.

13. Approximately 6,700 trips take people to locations such as grocery stores, personal shopping, banks, etc.

14. Repeat trips especially are difficult because there needs to be enough vehicles and drivers available.

15. A great share of the transit funding comes from outside the county through grants — yet another boost to the local economy.

At this milestone of a decade after transit expansion, perhaps it is time for another community wide conversation. Passenger transportation need has been reduced, but the need has not vanished. Some passengers give up calling after their request is turned down because the system is full and that impact is difficult to measure.

Mass transit is a worthy — but lofty — long-term goal. It eventually might be necessary to make central Indiana more competitive.

In the meantime, should those future goals be allowed to overshadow continued development of the existing local transit resource for residents? I say absolutely not. Better local transportation will have an immediate effect on medical care, employment opportunities, and access to community services, our residents’ quality of life and the local economy.

The number of denied trips in 2015 during the normal hours of operation was 85, up from 34 the year before. So how could public transportation improve in the near future?

Every year, INDOT uses a formula to calculate funds available to the transit system. Last year, another $40,000 was available but could not be accessed. More local funds were needed to trigger the required dollar-for-dollar match.

Local funds could have matched that $40,000, making $80,000 available for more trips, more hours of service and better outcomes for the county’s population.

In raising these questions, I hope to spark discussions among county residents, local businesses and local government officials. Relatively small local investments could impact the unmet need for more availability. The growth in our county has expanded many opportunities for Hancock residents — but nothing is an opportunity if you cannot get to it.

Linda Hart is the executive director of Hancock County Senior Services. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.