Many Licking County transit riders find service lacking


NEWARK – Tanya Walker depends on Licking County Transportation Services to get her to her doctor’s appointments, if she’s lucky to get a ride scheduled with them.

For the last 11 years, Walker has used transportation services after her knee was amputated due to a staph infection in her bone.

“The doctor said it was either my life or my leg, so I had them take my leg,” she said. “Now transit is the only way for me to get around.”

Walker is confined to a motorized wheelchair and it doesn’t fold up, so the buses are her best option.

She added the transportation service used to be really reliable and she could almost always get a ride.

Recently, though, she has been turned away, being told that there’s no available rides.

“It used to be that you could call just 48 hours before you needed the ride,” Walker said. “But now I’m calling weeks in advance, and because I haven’t been able to get a ride, I’ve missed so many appointments with my doctors.”

Transportation was one of many concerns identified in the recent United Way of Licking County’s Community Blueprint. The 46-page document, a culmination of a two-year study by a number of collaborating agencies, includes surveys from residents, service providers and agency beneficiaries.

The busing service runs from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are nearly 40 buses out in service during each shift driving routes all throughout the county.

Even with the amount of vehicles available, the high demand for transit means they fill up quickly, according to LCTS General Manager Cathy Sheets said.

“We typically schedule anywhere between 600 and 620 riders a day, but between cancellations and no-shows, we end up with a little over 500,” she said.

Transportation in the county started in 1998 as a commuter service for people living in Newark and working in Columbus. The county took over all of Licking County’s transit needs early in 2013, including Newark’s city service and busing for the Licking County Developmental Disabilities.

But as the department continues to grow, so does the need.

Robert Hicks, 30, lives off of Irvingwick Drive in Heath, but works at the Goodwill Plaza on Mt. Vernon Road in Newark.

He tries his best to reserve a seat with a county bus, but if he can’t manage that, he’s left with few options.

“I try to get a ride with anyone at work who has a car, but that doesn’t always happen,” Hicks said. “If I can’t find a ride, I have to take my bike.”

The ride from home to work usually takes him an hour and a half, taking bike paths when he can, then using main roads to finish the route.

In the few cases Hicks has needed to schedule something last minute, he tries transportation services first. But that rarely works.

“One time my dad’s car broke down, so I was trying to go with my mom to the grocery store. It was too short of notice and we were out of luck,” Hicks said.

Donna Gibson, with Mental Health America of Licking County, said she sees people in the same situations as Walker and Hicks all the time.

“We have a lot of people who come to us without driver’s licenses,” she said. “Some of them are just coming out of the legal system. They’re just trying to get their lives in a better place, but without reliable transportation, that is hard for them to do.”

Gibson said they have tried to encourage carpooling to work, but if someone gets a new job or leaves, then the people without cars are back where they started.

“Scheduling is so hard to do, too. If someone is just hired, they have to try and call as soon as they can. And if they can’t, then they may lose that opportunity,” she said. “And that could put some of these people right back into the vicious cycle.”

Both Gibson and Sheets are in agreement about one thing, They both say there needs to be more funding for transportation in the county.

“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” Sheets said. “Without it, we can’t meet the demand to serve and we don’t have the ability to, either.”

In 2015, the department received $1.4 million from the federal government, $106,000 from the state and $65,000 from the county.

However, it had to spend almost $4 million to cover vendor and maintenance fees and only raised $156,000 from fares. Cash reserves helped fill the budget gap.

“If we tried to use fares to pay for everything, it would be about $26.78 per trip,” Sheets said. “We’re doing the very best we can with what money we have.”

Fares run from $4 for any rides that are pre-booked or $6 for any same-day pickups. Seniors pay $2 for pre-booked rides or $3 for same day rides. And that’s if they don’t qualify for cheaper rides.

Sheets said that if they had more funding, they could provide more service.

“It’s heartbreaking for us that we can’t drive everyone who calls in,” Sheets said. “We really do care.”

Once rides are scheduled, riders don’t have a problem with the services. The drivers are polite and friendly and mostly on time.

Judith Nicholl, of Heath, uses the bus to get to her medical appointments. She said there has only been one instance when the bus was late and that because there was a mess up with the address.

Bobby Skidmore, of Hanover, just started a new job at Middleton Senior Living in Granville, said he didn’t think he would have been hired if the buses couldn’t take him to work.

Many of the riders interviewed for this article agreed that a fixed route would increase the number of people who could ride each day and help with the scheduling nightmare which has helped a lot with in the project.

Sheets said they are hopeful that they can design a fixed route soon, but that is still in the future. The department’s first focus is getting fully staffed.

Gibson said that she knows this situation doesn’t have an overnight fix and that’s why the United Way’s Community Blueprint is such a huge deal: it’s about agencies joining forces to help mend the transit system.

“Transportation both helps and hinders everyone who needs it in this county,” she said. “It can really inhibit everything, from grocery store runs to doctors appointments.”


Twitter: @BarrettLawlis

Found in The Newark Advocate May 13, 2016


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