Vineyard Seniors' Bus Services Are Subject of Call for Change

By ALEXIS TONTI

Faced with changes to what they say is already an inadequate service, leaders within the Island Councils on Aging are now calling on the Vineyard Transit Authority to reform its senior public transportation program.

"We've seen this problem coming for a while. More and more seniors are calling to say they're having trouble getting rides and that they can't get to their programs. It was snowballing, we could see it reaching a crisis," said Leslie Clapp, director of the Island Councils on Aging.

"We need to work with the VTA to provide the services that the seniors here need to get to the places they need to go - not just medical appointments but general things like errands, shopping and picking up prescriptions. These services are less available now and are going to become less available," said Ms. Clapp.

The call for reform was sparked by changes to the VTA Dial-A-Ride program, the availability of which has been declining slowly over time.

"We have the vehicles but not the funding. Anything new needs to fund itself 100 per cent," said VTA administrator Angela Grant.

"The kind of service they are looking for is provided in many communities off-Island by councils on aging with volunteer drivers or paid drivers. That kind of program uses a lot of resources, about $250,000 a year - and that's based on today, not five years of growth or a larger influx of people needing access to the system."

She added that the transit authority's annual budget of roughly $2.7 million is already stretched thin.

For people living on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, bus service continues to be readily available. VTA buses pull into Hillside Village and Woodside Village regularly and also stop at the Tisbury Senior Center. But for those who have trouble walking to a bus stop or who live off the regular routes (and in the winter the routes are scaled back even further), the Dial-A-Ride program has historically been an important alternative. With a phone call - sometimes as late as the same day service is needed - seniors could arrange to do everything from run errands to attend programs at the town councils on aging.

But Dial-A-Ride has not operated in the summer for about four years. And come October, VTA managers say it will be available only to people who need a ride for medical purposes.

Complicating the issue is the VTA paratransit service, also known as The Lift. State and federal laws mandate that as a public agency, the VTA must provide comparable transportation to people with disabilities who live within three-quarters of a mile of any of their fixed bus routes.

The problem arises in part because the same set of vans is used for both The Lift and Dial-A-Ride programs. So space is only available for Dial-A-Ride users if paratransit users have not filled the schedule for the day. In addition, even when a Dial-A-Ride reservation is made well in advance, the rider still can be bumped depending on paratransit needs.

Each van seats 10 to 14 ambulatory people, but for every wheelchair passenger, four seats are lost. Mrs. Grant said it costs about $60 an hour to run each van, "which amounts to a much higher cost per passenger than on the fixed routes. It chews up a lot of money.

"So this winter [because of budget constraints] we were forced into making a decision about prioritizing the Dial-A-Ride trips, and the VTA board decided that medical needs would come first. This is not a new issue. This has been discussed for a while, but now we have to enforce the [medical purposes only] rule because we were becoming unreliable," said Mrs. Grant.

She added: "We are doing what we have to by law. I'm sure there's an unmet need, but no agency has quantified that - it's an unknown."

The number of senior citizens who take advantage of the service may be unclear, but the directors of the Island councils on aging are adamant that a reliable, year-round transportation program must be established. In a letter to Mrs. Grant, Ms. Clapp called the transportation problem "one of the most pressing needs at this time" and urged a cooperative effort to find a solution.

"The Vineyard Transit Authority, as the regional transit provider, is the organization responsible for providing critical transportation services for Island elders to all general and specialized resources between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on a daily basis. Transportation is the key link in our rural community that allows elders to remain independent in their own homes, combating isolation and promoting health and well-being," wrote Ms. Clapp.

The letter is signed by the eight members of the transportation committee that was formed several months ago to address the growing problem. Its members include representatives of the town councils on aging, the senior day program and Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands.

Describing an ideal Dial-A-Ride program, Ms. Clapp said, "Of course there would be parameters, maybe advance notice or maybe there would be one day when Oak Bluffs residents are picked up to do shopping and Vineyard Haven gets another day - but it would be a way for people to arrange their lives and get things done in a reasonable way, without having to use a car or somebody else's services - something that would really allow people to keep living their lives independently."

She acknowledged that the biggest obstacle may be funding, but concluded, "I feel confident that we'll make progress and end up with a system. It will just take time."