Transportation


This is an article from The Florida Transit Advocate, on-line newsletter published by the Florida Public Transit Association.

An important election is coming up in November.  Our Governor, a U.S. Senate seat, all of Florida’s 27 U.S. House Seats, most of our state Legislature, and a plethora of local positions are being put to the voters. Citizens in Hillsborough and Polk Counties will be asked to vote on ballot initiatives (see stories at the bottom left of this page).wes pic

Florida transit is at a crossroads. It’s up to voters like us to determine whether Florida is at a Renaissance or whether transit will slide backwards with budget cuts. Never before have so many Floridians, on both sides of the aisle, come to realize the need for strong, functioning transit systems in our urban areas. As someone who represents the interests of public transit in our Legislature every year, I can vouch that your voice will be heard in the halls of Tallahassee. I urge each of you to make sure that your positions on transit are made clear at the ballot box. I also invite you to urge your friends to subscribe to this newsletter, the larger our base, the more we will be heard.

Wes Watson,  Executive Director, 
Florida Public Transportation Association

With funds being cut from the State of Florida, I occasionally hear of people who are really hurting.  Perhaps this would be a way to help off-set some of your expenses if yours or your child’s transportation funding has been cut.

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The bus driver informed me, “I’m writing up Joey because of the language he was using on the bus today.”  I smiled politely and thanked the driver.

After Joey had come into the gym,  I gently put my arm into his arm and as we walked to his seat.  Quietly, I asked him, “You know what happens after you are written up by the bus?”

“Yeah.  After three times, they kick you off the bus,”  he said sadly.

“That’s right and then you won’t be able to ride the bus to work or to Special Gathering,”  I reminded him.  We both agreed that this wouldn’t make Joey, his parents or me happy.  I prayed for Joey; and we were able to begin our day with a renewed commitment to the Lord.

After church, Joey–who is known for his behaviors, not for a repentant spirit–spoke to the driver as he embarked the vehicle,  “I was wrong.  I’m sorry.  I won’t talk like that again.”  The driver looked at me, eyebrows raised in questioning wonder.  I smiled.

There are several reasons it makes sense to access public transportation for ministries who work within the special needs community.  First is the Joey Principle.  When there is a problem with behaviors during the long trip to and from church, your ministry becomes the ministers of healing for the bus driver and for your members.  The ministry isn’t the bad guy.  You can come along side with prayer, offering recommitment and love, rather than a harsh reprimand.  (Joey had gotten the harsh reprimand from the bus driver.)

Second, your ministry is not liable.  Years ago in another state, a county-owned van had an accident while transporting the members of a sister ministry.  One of the members was injured.  Though the injury didn’t appear to be serious, complications developed and it turned into a major problem.  Our sister ministry was able to help and love her member but the county was liable for the accident–not the ministry.

Third is the overall cost.  Purchasing a van is a major expensive.  Yet, the upkeep can be even more expensive.  Therefore, the amount your members must pay on public transportation to be transported is minimal compared to the cost of owning vans.

Fourth, it has become harder and harder for churches to lend their vans.  One church was totally committed to Special Gathering in lending their vans.  However, their insurance company balked.  After months of research, they found no company that would allow them to lend their vans. 

Fifth, each week we take the fare for the buses from the members’ weekly cash offering.  We want our members of know that it cost them something to ride the buses.  We want to teach them that what they receive always has a price tag and someone must pay the freight.  At times, some of our members get the idea that they get things for free.  We want impress on them the principle that nothing comes for free.

Each ministry will be able to work out the best way for them to access public transportation.  In larger cities, most people can hop on a regular bus route and arrive wherever they need to go.  Smaller counties may be willing to work with a ministry if  the ministry staff is willing to do most of the work of scheduling and monitoring the routes for them. 

What are some of the ways you have found to make transportation easier for your special needs ministry?  Have you been forced to think outside the box in regard to transportation?  What have been your solutions?

Within our county, public transportation is a mystery to most people, even those within the population who are developmentally disabled.  I’ve spent literally decades attempting to decipher the availability and complexity of this needed necessity for our members.  I believe in most counties in the US it would be easier because people within the mentally challenged community would have to learn to navigate the system to get to work and to the do their grocery shopping.

There are several reasons why public transportation is difficult in Brevard County but these situations may allow me to help others in the maze that sometimes forms around transportation needs.  Our county is extremely long and narrow.  Our transportation provider is Space Coast Area Transit (SCAT).  The county officials  had to divide Brevard into three zones to be able service it at all.  This adds to the problems for travelers and commuters because going from one zone to another is almost like going from one county to another.

Additionally, there are only three high population zones, leaving much of the county without service because SCAT would not be able to efficiently and economically run buses into the semi-rural areas.  Here are some things that I’ve learned that have worked for our members in accessing public transportation.  I think they will work anywhere public transportation needs to be used.

  1. Find out how decisions are made and who are the decision makers in your county in regard to transportation.  In the state of Florida, transportation systems are locally operated.  There is a MPO that is the overall decision making body.  Under them is the Local Coordinating Board (LCB). 
  2. It can be difficult find out about these meetings.  Google is your friend.  Look on the web or in your phone book for information.  Start making calls and asking questions.  After a few calls, you will find someone who will know what you are talking about.
  3. Attend as many transportation meetings as feasibly possible, especially a local coordinating board.  This says to the people who are involved in local transportation that you are interested and someone with whom they will one day have to deal.  Someone from Special Gathering attended all the board meetings in two counties for several years before asking for anything.  By the time we asked, we knew the system and understood what would be needed to make our requests work.
  4. Designate one person from your ministry to be the “transportation person.”  Then the transportation system will have a “go to” person when they have questions.
  5. The squeaky wheel still gets the grease.  When transportation was needed in the south part of the county, SCAT was hesitant to provide it because of the cost and the perceived lack of interest.  One person came as an advocate for the people who needed transportation.  After several months, it was decided that it was worth the effort.  This has been one on SCAT’s most successful routes.
  6. Asking for your needs can work.  When Sheela came to ask for a route to the local college from her section of the county, the board was more than willing to tell the public system to “make it work.”  Again, this route became one of the most popular routes in the county.
  7. Almost all boards have a chair person who is an elected official.  They want to get reelected.  They want to help you.
  8. Find the citizen advocate on the board and ask for their assistance.  Because I serve on the board as a citizen advocate, I can usually help anyone needing real assistance. 
  9. Don’t ask for the impossible.  I received a phone call from a lady this week who wanted her mother to be picked up and carried to the doctor on her mother’s exact schedule.  “My mother shouldn’t have to wait in the doctor’s office after her appointment,” she told me.  “Therefore, whoever drives her will need to stay with her so she will have a ride home.”  After a couple of questions and explanations from me, the lady politely said, “You don’t understand.  My mother may need to wait on the doctor for a couple of hours.  Therefore, she MUST have someone to stay with her so that she won’t have to also wait on transportation.”  This is an impossible request, unless you want to hire an attendant.  The bus driver cannot wait on her as she waits an hour or two for her doctor to see her.
  10. Remember public transportation is PUBLIC.  There are benches at bus stops for a reason.  You will need to wait and after waiting you will need to wait some more. 

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.  Perhaps you have something to add to the conversation.  What has worked for you and your members?  Is it easier in a large city?  Or are there basically the same problems?

           Several times a week, Diane Wibber catches public transit to travel from Rockledge to Titusville.  When she moved to Titusville three years ago, she did not want to give up her employment at Pizza Hut in Rockledge. Faced with the issue of how to get from North Brevard County to Central Brevard, Ms. Wibber knew she could trust Space Coast Area Transit to provide her with the rides she needed.  

            Even though Ms. Wibber is developmentally disabled, she quickly picked up the routine involved in getting to her work place.  SCAT, which is responsible for providing community transportation for all of Brevard County, has a bus stop close to her home.  Her drop off spot is only one block from her employer.  Like 44 percent of her fellow riders, on the days Wibber serves in the restaurant, she rides the bus to and from her job.

            On Fridays, Wibber saves the seat next to her for her pastor, Rev. Richard Stimson.  He boards the bus in Port St. Johns on his way to his Rockledge office.  During their 20 minute ride, Ms. Wibber and Stimson discuss upcoming or past events.  If the pastor is preoccupied with e-mails or answering phone messages, Ms. Wibber sits quietly, reading a book or enjoying the landscape.

            Only a year ago, this scenario of pastor and parishioner sharing a ride to work via a SCAT bus would have seemed improbable in Brevard County.  Of course, people with disabilities and the elderly have drawn on Space Coast Area Transit for decades.  Yet, it wasn’t until the fuel crisis of 2008 that professional men and women began to access the buses.

            With the advent of $4 a gallon gasoline and a renewed emphasis on conservation, people began searching for more affordable and greener ways to get to work.  It wasn’t hard to discover the fixed-route service offered by SCAT.  In a matter of weeks, ridership jumped 15 percent. 

            While this may have been expected during the oil dilemma, it was what happened after gas prices lowered that stunned everyone.  The rider census on the fixed routes didn’t dip. In fact, according to a published report prepared by Renaissance Planning Group, “SCAT continues to gain new ridership.” In a recent survey of 1,054 passengers conducted by the group, Renaissance found that 10 percent of the commuters surveyed were riding for the first time.

            Accessing SCAT is an economic option for Brevard residents heading for work.  Additionally, it is most exploited by those employees who need it the most.  The 2008 Rider Survey prepared for the Brevard Metropolitan Planning Organization by Renaissance reported three interesting facts.

            First, 76 percent of SCAT riders have an annual household income of $25,00 or less.  This is below the County’s median income.  Second, it was encouraging that a disproportionate number of the riders are younger–in the 25 to 44 age range compared to the County overall.  In addition, two thirds of the SCAT riders are employed, which suggests the same proportion probably use public transit for work.

            The ridership survey noted that improvements were needed in hours of service, frequency and travel time.  Two-thirds of the survey respondents identified “more frequent service” as the most glaring necessity.  In other words, the riders see more bus service in more places as the greatest public transit need.  Though there are continuing complaints about the lack of routes, the overall satisfaction of a majority of the travelers was “good” or “excellent.” Even the “route frequency” and “hours of service” categories received an overall rating of “OK” and “Good.”

            Always looking to learn more about Brevard County transit needs, Jim Liesenfelt, Transit Director, expressed the consensus sentiment revealed by the increasing number of riders SCAT has experienced even though oil prices have dropped.  Liesenfelt’s conclusion sums up the issue, “These continuing increases confirm that there is a demand out there for some basic level of transit that we are just now beginning to provide.”

This is a response to an e-mail I sent to Jim Liesenfelt regarding the State and County cuts which could be expected to effect Space Coast Area Transit (SCAT).

As of right now, we aren’t targeting any cuts to the disabled.  When I first arrived at Space Coast Area Transit, the Board’s mission for us was to serve the elderly and disabled.  In the late 90’s, the Board also wanted us to add focus on “Welfare to Work.” So that’s what we’ve done. 

 

If we “only” had to take a 20 percent cut in our local funding, we’ll be in decent shape. The reduction in fuel costs will let us cut 10 percent of our local funding right off the bat. We’ll probably have to reduce some fixed route service to reach the rest of the 20 percent; but it will be the lesser used routes like Route 5 (Mims), Route 24 (North/West Melbourne) and Route 26 (beaches south of Patrick).  We know this would affect some individual riders. There might be a way to help some of those folks with paratransit. 

 

Now a 40 percent cut…I really don’t know what will happen.  To be honest, I haven’t worked out that scenario.  It’s just too scary. 

 

Our budget is due on May 1, so I will have a better picture then.  At 40 percent, we have to cut $580,000 in staff and services.  The cost for 40 hours of bus service per year for just the driver’s salary and fuel is about $65,000.  Therefore, we’re looking at removing about 360 hours of service per week or almost 19,000 hours per year.  We run about 70,000 hours of fixed route service a year.  That’s a 27 percent cut to service on the road. 

 

We also have funds called balance forward. It’s basically funds left in the bank on September 30 each year.  These are funds left if we come under budget or generate higher revenue than budgeted.  I imagine that there will be a push to take that money away from us.  Since we don’t have reserves, we have always used that balance forward each year to provide transportation service.  Keeping as much of this funding will help to dampen the upcoming local funding cuts. 

 

In theory, you would cut the lowest performing routes.  However, we have to look at connectivity, time of day, time of week, etc. to determine what to cut.  In my mind, paratransit and contract routes are the base that would be one of the last things to cut; but I still could see us tweaking the contract routes.  If we did that, the biggest change the Med-Waiver folks would see is more part-time drivers on the routes and we make our scheduling more efficient.  Once we come up with something, it’s still up to the Brevard County Commissioners to make the final decision.

 

It doesn’t hurt to let the Commissioners know what’s important to your customers and how it helps to provide their independence.  Right now, we are doing okay with our state funding.  No cuts to the Transportation Disadvantaged funds or our general state transit aid are projected.  However, that could change starting next year, so we have to be vigilant. 

 

A real bright spot is that even with gas prices dropping, our fixed route ridership is up about 15 percent for the year.  Interestingly, it’s paratransit service that is struggling, since a number of our disabled riders have lost their jobs.  I’ve let Brevard Achievement Center and the School Board folks know about this.  We want them to know that if they had clients that needed transportation to work, we are there to help. 

I watched in horror the sight of the Continental plane that went down killing 50 people.  Of course, we all know that most plane crashes occur in the first five minutes of flight or as a plane is landing.  In life, there are dangerous times of which we should be aware

In regard to programs that specialize in persons with disabilities, there is always the concern of health and safety issues.  Most accidents and abuse happen at the end of programs.  A person who is developmentally disabled may be particularly subject to sexual abuse because of his or her inability to communicate.   In addition, this is the time that you may not be as aware of accidents and mishaps.

When coming to your program, there is a deadline.  The buses arrive at 9:45am.  If they are late, there is an alert sent out.  If a van is late by five or ten minutes, we are on the phone contacting the driver, “Where are you?  Are you all right?”

Thoughtful program directors of ministries within the mentally challenged community know the problems they face in transporting people.  Community-based programs may be the most effective way to gain community financial support and the most effective way to evangelize.  However, it demands that people will be transported from their home to the meeting place.  This adds an additional layer of concern regarding accidents and abuse.

At The Special Gathering, which is a ministry within the mentally challenged community, we have set instructions in regard to closing a program.  It isn’t a matter of trust.  It is a matter of safety.  Working with people who are developmentally disabled, our mission is evangelism and discipleship.  However, we have never been able to turn our backs on safety.  In fact, if we keep our members safe, we will keep our program alive.  If safety isn’t primary and there is a tragic incident, we will not be able to survive.  Due diligence is paramount.

Therefore, our closing-down process is vital.  Because we have accessed public transportation and have dedicated buses that only our members use, there is little issue in regard to these passengers.  We are responsible to insure that they are on the bus and that addresses are correct.  It is the county transit department that is responsible from that point forward.

It is our van routes that are our greatest concern.  Therefore, after the last person is dropped off, we ask that our drivers to call the program director.  My programs are not closed down, until every driver has given me a phone call letting me know that each person has  been dropped off.  This is protection for the driver and for the passengers. 

We have set routes and each program director knows the routes and how long it will take to drop off each person.  If a driver does not call in the alloted time, the program director will call the driver.  Or the program director will call the last person dropped off.   If that person has not been delievered to their homes, s/he will continue to call the list of people who were to be dropped off, until s/he reaches the last person dropped off. 

If there are people who haven’t been dropped off, the program director will then follow the route until the van is found.  Usually this means that a van is broken down or there has been a fender-bender.  It could as simple as a tire blow-out or a stalled vehicle.  However, with the necessary safety instruction in place, the program director will be on alert to know that each person is home safely.  Only after each person has been safely delivered to their homes can the program be shut down. 

Some of our area directors insure that a high-functioning verbal member is the last person to be dropped off.  Then that person is responsible to make the phone call.  That has not worked with my van routes.  For one route, the last person who is dropped off  has terrible short-term memory loss and has never remembered to call me.  In another route, the member lives in ALF and is not able to make phone calls.  Therefore, I call the homes to insure that the route has been completed.  This works for us.

Your circumstances will be different from another program.  However, if these kinds of safe-guards haven’t been put into place, you should do it today.  While prayer is vital in our ministry, don’t pray about whether you should do it.  Pray that God will give you wisdom in how to it.

What are some of the things that you find put your members in vulnerable positions?  What safe guards have you instituted to avoid them?

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