Initiative aims to improve senior transit

January 10, 2005

Martinsville Bulletin

A national group is working with local leaders to develop ways to improve transit services for older Henry County and Martinsville residents.

Through its "Aging in Place" initiative, Partners for Livable Communities, based in Washington, D.C., is being advised by a committee of about 30 people, said its program officer, Elli Dalrymple.

The committee includes representatives of agencies serving seniors, such as the Southern Area Agency on Aging and Henry-Martinsville Social Services, and county and city officials, she said.

The initiative is funded by a $35,000 grant from The Harvest Foundation and began about six months ago. The hope is to finish by the end of 2005.

"It's going to take quite a while" to come up with ideas, Dalrymple said.

Because of limited budgets, "obviously we're not going to create a subway system" or similar means of public transit, said Harry Cerino, director of The Harvest Foundation. "We're trying to figure out what makes sense."

Teresa Carter, director of the Southern Area Agency on Aging, believes a sensible first step is determining all the current transportation resources for seniors and then coordinating them.

There "probably is more help being provided than we realize," said Wayne Knox, planning-zoning and housing manager for the city.

Partners for Livable Communities and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging are working on the initiative in 10 localities across the nation, Dalrymple said.

The initiative aims to ensure the availability of programs and services that make cities and counties "good places to grow old," its Web site says.

Each locality chooses its own "banner issue" to focus on, Dalrymple said.

In Henry County and Martinsville, advisers determined that transportation is seniors' most urgent need because of the area's rural character, said Henry-Martinsville Social Services Director Joyce Grogan.

Locally, transportation for seniors is provided by the county and city parks and recreation departments, which operate special programs for seniors. Both get federal and state funds annually. The county receives $78,573 and the city $28,935 fo transportation, Carter said.

County and city shuttles take seniors to doctor's offices, drug and grocery stores and congregate nutrition sites, said Carter. There is no charge for the service although donations from riders are welcome, officials said.

Both county and city transit services are heavily used, she said. County figures show 159 people transported on 10,861 one-way trips. In the city, 186 people were taken on a total of 9,113 one-way trips.

With so many trips made for essentials such as drugs or groceries, there is little time left to take seniors to social and recreational programs, Carter said, and that is one way in which transportation services might be expanded.

Officials believe there are churches that offer some seniors a limited transit service but may be interested in expanding service to the entire community.

To coordinate private transportation services, providers would have to determine if they could serve the entire community, Knox said.

Several years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation sponsored a study that indicated possible routes for a local public transit system.

"Economically we couldn't (act on any recommendations) short term, so it wasn't a priority," Knox said.

And there are "strings attached" when state funds are involved, he said.

"If we can coordinate (senior transportation) without the state government involved, it might be handled better," Knox said.

Partners for Livable Communities is responsible only for designing a rural transportation system, Dalrymple said.

Putting it in place "is going to be up to us," Grogan said.


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