Megann Horstead | For the Bugle
Bud’s Ambulance marketing manager Laura Daley knows private services such as the one she works for see many challenges in serving as a resource to those needing transportation in Will County.
She said it’s heartbreaking when riders are turned away for lack of coordination between service providers. The tipping point, according to Daley, comes down to issues of economic feasibility and legality.
“That’s where a huge problem starts,” she said. “It’s kind of a huge can of worms from there.”
A number of experts and stakeholders involved in paratransit transportation of seniors and the disabled were on hand last week for a panel discussion on the needs of those living in Will County.
The Senior Services Center of Will County hosted the program to allow for open dialogue on the issues transpiring not only in Joliet, but across the county.
Congressman Bill Foster, D-11th, said putting the issue at the forefront holds great meaning.
“I think that everyone in this world wants the same things for people with disabilities and seniors who have the ability to move about their communities,” he said. “It’s really important for everyone to live their lives without restrictions.”
Foster said he’s pleased by the ways in which transportation providers in the area have responded to service needs, added that the system needs more work.
In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since that time, public transportation providers such as Pace have made efforts to improve paratransit services individuals living in the communities they serve.
Still, some obstacles still exist.
“Paratransit fares are already subsidized more than any other form of public transit, and they’re consuming an ever-greater portion of transportation agency budgets,” Foster said.
In 2012, paratransit services represented 12 percent of transit agency costs on average. That number, Foster said, will increase as baby boomers begin to retire in greater numbers.
Foster said solutions are needed to curb transportation costs moving forward, without having a negative impact on services provided.
“I know that many agencies have some success in transitioning more-abled paratransit riders to traditional transit through travel training, vehicle accessibility, and reduced or eliminated fares,” he said. “These are all steps in the right direction, but we need to do more.”
The use of technology, in conjunction to alternative providers, such as Lyft and Uber, in cities like Boston aim to provide relief, but those pilot programs also see challenges. These forms of transportation and their drivers are not required by law to provide means for ADA accessibility, nor are they trained in how to engage with riders who may need assistance.
In Will County, there are a number of Township-coordinated, dial-a-ride programs that aim to break down obstacles.
Of the multifaceted issues that sometimes arise, a number of experts pointed out concerns regarding a lack of movement to educate the public. Among those discussing the resources and services available were representatives from Pace, the Regional Transportation Authority and Will County.
Will County Transportation Department mobility manager Wendie Garlich said the lack of options with respect to transportation in the eastern portion of the county doesn’t help.
“We’re just not educated on how to use public transportation because we don’t have anything out there,” she said.
Like other members of the panel, Garlich said the stigma surrounding bus ridership is another area of concern that requires their attention.
Garlich said that if there are seniors or disabled persons who are Medicaid or Medicare eligible, there are transportation providers who are available to serve them at no cost.
Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living Center community organizer Sam Knight said the ins and outs of the county transportation system need to be communicated to residents more consistently, so as to eliminate the public’s confusion.
“It has so many levels to it,” he said. “There needs to be education in the community but also to us as providers when things change.”
Knight said that education effort may open the doors for people to to use public transportation less grudgingly.
Director of the Achieving Independence and Mobility Center for Independent Living Leigh Ann Stephens said it is their goal, like many of the organizations represented on the panel, to direct people to resources that can help fill in the holes that exist in the transportation system.
“Where the system isn’t perfect, there are things and resources that are available,” she said. “…We’re here to partner with other organizations—the RTA and PACE and AARP and the senior centers—to make sure that our consumers are getting the best services possible.”
Senior Services Center of Will County Executive Director Barry Kolanowski said he and other experts on the panel hope to resolve the challenges faced in the region and remain to making Will County a livable community for all.
“We recognize a transportation solution is going to have to be multifaceted,” he said.