Public transit gets creative to keep seniors mobile

With its operations budget reduced by millions of dollars, Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) is being forced to make cuts. More than a dozen bus routes are slated for frequency reductions and one will be eliminated. The proposed changes will start later this year, leaving public transit riders with fewer options and more waiting.

Senior Monterey County residents, who ride for half price, will be among those affected by pending transit route cuts.

This article is one in an occasional series on aging with dignity, independent living and public policy that affects both. For a complete archive of the articles, click here.


Isolation from medical care, shopping and social opportunities is a problem facing elderly and disabled people living on limited incomes.

“It would be really hard to get out without public transportation. I make just enough money to pay rent, buy groceries and feed my dog, Cookie,” said 66-year-old David Hartry, a resident at Pacific Meadows, a rental community with more than 250 senior apartments.

Keeping transportation options available and affordable is the job of public transit authorities, but with federal operations funding being slashed, their job involves a lot of juggling.

“MST serves the low and fixed income population,” said Tom Hicks, Consolidated Transportations Services Agency Manager for MST. “We’ve tried to hold bus fares constant. But we’ve had to cut back bus service, and that’s affected people.”

While the average California household experiences a pinch at the pump, public transit systems are facing a punch. For MST, the rise in fuel prices over the past year equates to an increase of $672,000 according to Hunter Harvath, Assistant General Manager of Finance and Administration for MST.

America’s fuel costs have risen by about $1 per gallon in the past year according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. And Californians face the highest fuel prices in the nation and more variability than other states. Consumer Alliance for Responsible Fuel Policies blames taxes and fees for the differential, reporting that the average California household spends $277 more per year in gasoline taxes than the American average.

While fuel costs are making it more difficult to keep transit systems manageable, federal funds for transit operations are being slashed. In 2012, MST will be running on $515,000 less in federal operations grant funding, reported Harvath.

The service cuts proposed by MST are necessary, according to Harvath, to make up for the loss in federal funding and the rise in fuel costs.

Four public hearings were held to discuss the planned cuts in affected communities. Salinas, Pacific Grove, Seaside and Monterey residents and transit users were encouraged to contribute commentary and questions regarding the core service cuts, slated to commence in September.

“Public participation at the hearings was limited,” Harvath said. “We hope we are cutting in the least painful places so that people will still be able to maintain their daily lives. We tried to target low ridership times.”

While funding for core services and operations costs is disappearing, funding for specialized programs is growing. And, MST is using that opportunity to make up for the impact on seniors and disabled individuals by seeking grant funds for programs that meet their unique needs.

“It’s harder and harder to get money for operations,” said Hicks. “It’s easier to get money for building and expanding.”

“At the same time that we are reducing core services, we are also adding services specifically targeted to seniors,” said Harvath. “We are trying to look out for seniors and disabled riders who have special considerations for mobility and needs. We are pursuing special grant programs that are available for this purpose.”

For example, federal grants are being used to fund a new senior shuttle in Carmel and Monterey. The shuttle route was designed by seniors who use it, so it would travel in a route consistent with their needs. Halfway through its second month of implementation, the program has been in the works for several years. Hicks said it is a low cost alternative to taxis and Paratransit, a curbside-to-curbside transportation service provided to eligible disabled residents.

A pilot taxi voucher program, implemented in 2008, is also scheduled for expansion thanks to more federal grant funding for specialized programs secured by MST.

The Pacific Meadows Pilot Taxi Voucher Program issued approximately 2,000 vouchers to seniors over an eight month period. A voucher allowed participating seniors, age 65 and older, to take a taxi ride for free. Adjustments were made during the second phase of the pilot to make the program more cost effective and efficient. Implementation of a $3 copayment was key in getting users to ride share, reducing user costs and cutting the cost of the program for its state and federal funders.

Residents of the senior housing apartments, Pacific Meadows, brought their needs directly to MST, Hicks said. “They are quite isolated,” said Hicks. “They came to us because they had no bus service.”

Lena Bender, 99, lives on the limited income provided by her social security benefits. Bender uses taxi vouchers once or twice a week to do necessary shopping and meet appointments. She prefers taxis to riding the bus because she gets tired during the long ride home.

“I enjoy the taxi voucher program,” said Bender. “I use it for grocery shopping. If I can’t get a cab, then I have to arrange for my children to get me and that can be difficult because they work.”

Robbi Meluso, 71, has been living at Pacific Meadows for eight years. Meluso started relying on MST’s public transportation offerings when she stopped driving last year. She was involved in a minor accident and became nervous about her driving abilities. Her late husband’s death from head-on collision added to her growing fear that her driving might harm to others.

The taxi voucher program will soon expand to Salinas and other cities in the Monterey Peninsula. There are no income requirements for seniors participating in the program.

“The goal of the voucher program,” said Hicks, “is to give them a doorway to the MST bus system so they can go wherever they want to go.”

For seniors and others who are unsure about navigating the public transit system, MST provides a free Travel Training Program, also funded by a federal grant. The training is individualized to help riders become confident using the bus system.

“We will train anyone on how to use the bus system,” Hicks said, “including our online travel planner.”

To ensure involvement in planning programs and providing input, MST’s Mobility Advisory Committee invites seniors and other affected individuals to attend committee meetings and provide feedback about mobility services they would like to see as well as existing services.

“Participation from the community is important to help us guide our priorities and programs,” said Harvath.

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