METRO Magazine reported in our February/March issue on small transit agencies in urbanized areas that face fierce competition for funding and cope with rising fuel prices and rapidly growing paratransit demands. Rural transit systems are dealing with much of the same, when providing what dwindling amount of service they can to a predominantly low-income population that depends on them for medical transportation and a way to get to jobs.
A report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), “The U.S. Rural Population and Scheduled Intercity Transportation in 2010: A Five-Year Decline in Transportation Access,” shows that that assistance is going away. As many as 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity transportation between 2005 and 2010. That put the number of rural residents with access to intercity air, bus, ferry or rail transportation to 89%, down from 93% five years ago.
BTS, part of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, reported that 8.9 million rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation in 2010, up from 5.4 million in 2005.
BTS defined access to transportation as living within 25 miles from a non- or small-hub airport, bus station, ferry terminal or rail station providing intercity service, and as 75 miles from a medium- or large-hub airport.
Distance, remote areas
Distance is indeed an obstacle for many rural system operators, with people in need spread out over remote areas. Western Maine Transportation Services (WMTS) serves 38 communities ranging from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people in three counties bordering New Hampshire and Canada, and provides fixed-route, paratransit, and Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Friends & Family Rides and Volunteer Rides programs, primarily for people who are Medicaid-eligible for non-emergency transportation trips.
Maine’s land mass is almost as large as the other New England states combined. The three-county area that WMTS serves is over 4,400 square miles.
“It’s a pretty daunting task trying to get service out,” Pat Christian, GM, WMTS, says. “Some areas are unincorporated, so there are not many people there. Obviously, we can’t meet everyone’s needs, but we try to meet as many as possible for these people who are most in need of mobility.”
Additionally, many of the various remote areas that St. Johnsbury, Vt.-based Rural Community Transportation Inc. (RTC) services don’t have cellphone access. GPS doesn’t always pick up and isn’t always accurate, Sandy Thorpe, transit coordinator, RTC, says.
One of the major drawbacks RTC faces is the fact that it has a two-hour headway between point A and point B, Thorpe adds.
“You have to allow two hours for a round-trip run, [even though] you only have 20 miles of travel distance but you’ve got lots of stops, and people getting on and off, and sometimes you have wheelchairs,” she says. “For a lot of people it’s very difficult, and frustrating for them to say, ‘I have to wait for two hours for the next bus before I can get back home after I finish an appointment.’ With additional funding we’d be able to run a whole other set of routes.”
Harold Jennisen, transit manager of Lowry, Minn.-based Rainbow Rider, says that the remoteness of its rural areas and the lack of sufficient funding makes expanding its service nearly impossible. For example, he adds, if a bus picks up one person, it may travel 20 miles one way to get them to major hubs for groceries and medical care.[PAGEBREAK]
Limited technology is another challenge that dovetails with long distances and a lack of funding and can make providing service even more difficult. WMTS uses cellphones and two-way radios for communication, though, Christian says, there’s a lot of dead area. However, the agency has been able to increase its efficiency by adopting paratransit dispatching and scheduling software, recently implementing supplier Mobilitat’s Easy Rides computerized scheduling dispatch and invoicing system.
“We’ve been able to take calls, get good directions to where people live, create manifests, get that to dispatch and carry it all the way through to invoicing,” Christian says. “That’s been a real plus for us in the last three years.”
WMTS is also working with Mobilitat to get funding to install Mobile Data Computers [MDCs] or tablets on the vehicles.
Rainbow Rider is currently using Excel spreadsheets for its dispatch and two-way radios and cellphones for buses. It is in the process of getting Routematch dispatch software and seven-inch tablets in its buses by mid-August.
“We’re going to be much more efficient than we are now,” Jennisen says. “We think we know where the [buses] are, but sometimes they’re ahead, sometimes they’re behind. It’s hard to know where they are. We’ll be able to pinpoint them a lot better.”
Growing paratransit needs
The combined factors of Maine being predominantly a rural state, and, according to the 2010 Census, having the largest senior population in the U.S., present unique challenges, Christian says. This is especially the case because the agency’s biggest market is non-emergency medical transportation and it’s trying to enable seniors to continue to live in their homes. “Transportation and mobility is key to allowing seniors to stay at home,” he adds. “[That’s] much less expensive in the long run than having them in institutional settings.”
Connie Garber, transportation director, York County Community Action Corp. (YCCAC) of Sanford, Maine, adds that, just like WMTS and many other agencies, YCCAC is dealing with “the graying of America,” as she puts it. “Mobility is an increasing issue for us, and will continue to be in rural areas,” she adds. “Those of us who have been in the business for a while — and I’m on the 30-plus years side of that at this job — what we see now is one of the most challenging times [ever.] The resources are scarcer, the demands are higher. The economy plays into that in large part as people have lost their jobs and don’t have health coverage and access to private automobiles. We’re in a perfect storm, whether you’re in an urban or rural area. It’s just that there are fewer options if you’re in a rural area.”
A more and more common scenario, Garber says, is that a rider in one of the 29 towns YCCAC serves may only have is a certain number of days a week of service, and their doctor can only see them on a different day or at a different time than YCCAC buses and vans are available. If that rider is not covered by the state Medicaid program, and there’s no other funding to help them get to that medical appointment, it’s a significant challenge. [PAGEBREAK]
As with all transit systems, diminishing funds often stymy rural transit systems.
YCCAC coordinates all federal, state and local funding, to avoid a profusion of little entities providing little bits of service. “We are able through economies of scale to provide high-quality, professional service to all of our customers,” Garber says.
The agency gets small allotments — less than $100,000 is typical — through the FTA’s 5310, Elderly and Disabled program. Garber adds that some years the amount of funding is so small that the agency can’t even buy a complete vehicle with what it gets from capital funding.
“The only other capital money we get is if we’re successful in getting funds through the State of Good Repair or one of the other programs of that nature,” she adds. “Last year we got nothing out of the State of Good Repair.”
YCCAC has 51 vehicles, 10 of which are trolleys, and a mix of vans and small buses built for 24 or fewer passengers. The fleet is comprised of a variety of different manufacturers because the state purchases them.
“They go out to bid and we get what we get,” Garber says. “We keep [them] running as long as we can, because, as with most urban and rural areas, we’re behind on our capital replacement because of a lack of federal dollars.”
WMTS runs 30 vehicles for its paratransit service, with a fleet comprised of vans, min-vans and Starcraft and Goshen Coach cutaways and is trying to replace rolling stock as soon as possible. “We don’t have any alternative-fueled vehicles yet,” Christian says.
Garber hopes that this year Maine will, for the first time in years, agree to include a portion of funds in a bond package that YCCAC can use as a match for other federal dollars that other transportation providers have been successful in getting.
Vermont’s RTC is trying to get funding to update its fleet and add bus tracking technology. The agency has a computerized dispatch system for its volunteer drivers and vans.
Dealing with rising ridership, the agency recently bought some bigger buses. “We ask for additional money for vehicles and try to go to at least one larger bus at a time,” Thorpe says.
RTC is working on a long-term transportation plan which could increase the number of routes, their frequency, and the length of service days.
“We can try to further accommodate people that are working [early in the morning or late at night along] the bus routes,” Thorpe says. “We can’t start that early with the funding we have [now].”
Similarly, Rainbow Riders can only provide rides Monday through Friday, with the exception of a re-introduced Saturday service in one of the larger towns it covers. It had been providing the popular Saturday service for some time, but had to discontinue it to save money when the state of Minnesota government shut down last summer for about one month.
Volunteer drivers, job access
Many rural transit systems, including YCCAC, WMTS, Rainbow Rider and RTC, rely on volunteer driver programs to help cope with both cost and demand.
YCCAC, which serves 1,000 square miles and a population of about 197,000 people in 29 towns, has over 100 volunteer drivers, used mainly for high-priority human service trips, such as getting children who are in foster or protective care and in danger of abuse or neglect connected to the services they need. Volunteers also transport people to medical appointments who cannot be served by its buses and vans. They get reimbursed only for mileage.
“We’ve done a calculation of what the dollar value is of their contributed time and it’s over a million dollars in terms of the miles and the time they contributed,” Garber says.
Last year, volunteers drove about 4.2 million miles.
The price of fuel in general is a big issue YCCAC struggles with, but it’s also particularly difficult because of the number of miles that its volunteer drivers operate. The primary challenge, Garber says, is that across the board, none of its funding sources are increasing their reimbursement rates.
Another benefit that rural transit systems offer their communities is a free or affordable way to get to their jobs.
In 1999, YCCAC started Wheels to Access Vocation & Education (WAVE), a job access program that offers a seven-day-a-week service connecting people to jobs and training and getting the riders’ children to local day care. The service will soon provide its 500,000th ride.