GREENFIELD — Leaders of a local transportation service must delay efforts to expand their pickups to include nights and weekends, citing a lack of funding to support the project.
Users of Hancock Area Rural Transit, a Hancock County Senior Services effort that provides some 20,000 rides each year, have long requested evening hours and service on Saturdays; recently, plans for a pilot program for Saturday rides were set aside indefinitely after the agency fell well short of its $220,000 fundraising goal, said Linda Hart, Hancock County Senior Services executive director, who oversees the transportation service.
That expansion was expected to be funded in part by a $220,000 federal grant program administered by the Indiana Department of Transportation, but that program required the agency to raise a dollar-for-dollar match from local sources, including towns, townships and county governments as well as United Way funding and others. Senior Services was able to gather $165,000 of the local funding, so the agency lost out on the chance for an additional $49,000 from INDOT.
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It’s not the first time the transit program has fallen short of its fundraising goal; twice in the last three years, officials have lost out on INDOT funds that would have helped meet an increasing demand for transit service.
In 2015, drivers took county residents on 20,000 trips, usually grocery-shopping, to work or to doctor appointments; in 2016, that jumped to 22,000.
The service charges $3 a ride and offers trips by donation for those 60 and older; that amount isn’t nearly enough to cover expenses for the 12-vehicle fleet, Hart said. Senior Services’ annual budget totals about $617,000; rider fees generate about 10 percent of that per year.
Federal funding goes a long way to close the gap each year.
“That funding is absolutely critical,” Hart said. “Before we had federal funding, we were able to do about 8,000 to 9,000 trips for seniors only, and they were limited to certain destinations.”
With the federal funding distributed by INDOT, the transportation program can take seniors to any county location and has expanded to the general public.
Having the additional $49,000 this year would have encouraged Senior Services officials to take plans for Saturday hours to their board of directors sooner, Hart said.
That would have started the process of studying whether such a program is feasible and meets Senior Services’ mission of helping the county’s aging population live independently as long as possible.
But agency leaders aren’t giving up on efforts to meet their clients’ needs. This week, Senior Services officials paid off the mortgage on their building at 1870 Fields Blvd., where the transit system’s fleet is housed; that $2,000 paid each month from funds designated specifically toward the building will now go toward expanding, Hart said, adding she’s not sure how much an expansion would cost or how many staff members she’d have to hire to accommodate more trips.
The transit system currently employs about 20 drivers, many of whom have reported hearing their clients ask about whether pickups might one day be available on evenings or weekends. Among those ranks is Roger Kenyon, who has driven county residents for nine years.
Every shift, Kenyon transports about 10 passengers to and from their homes to work, doctor appointments, shopping trips — wherever they need to go, he said.
On Wednesday, he pulled his wheelchair-accessible van up to the doors of a doctor’s office, where Jackie Masterson waited patiently in her wheelchair after her Wednesday dialysis appointment.
Kenyon wheeled Masterson into the white van, securing her chair in the back of the van with sturdy straps. Masterson, who gets a ride at least three days a week, is among more than 800 people who depend on the transportation system each year; Kenyon suspects even more would take advantage if the service could expand.
Hart went before the Hancock County Board of Commissioners this month to explain why the transportation program could not make use of all the money available.
The amount of money available from INDOT increases annually based on a formula that considers development in the county, Hart said. However, local contributions have not risen to the level of funding the state transportation authority is willing to give, she said, adding that this year’s $49,000 is the highest amount the agency’s ever missed out on.
“What it means is we probably have to be more cautious about what we commit to,” she said. “Clients have asked us for later hours and Saturday service, but we are not able to do that at this time.”
The county transportation system currently has a waiting list for seniors wishing to schedule “subscription service” — clients like Masterson who have appointments the same time every single week, Kenyon said. About four people are on the waiting list right now.
The transit program currently receives funding from local governments, United Way of Central Indiana and CICOA Aging and In-Home Solutions as well as sponsoring businesses.
Kenyon believes residents would benefit from an expansion like Saturday hours, but he knows those who use the transportation system are thankful for what is available now, he said.
Masterson, who’s been taking rides for about two years, can attest to that.
“They’ve always been able to take me on all my appointments,” she said. “To be honest, I’m not sure what I’d do without them.”