By Peter Johnke, NCIL Transportation Subcommittee Co-Chair
If you live in a rural area and don’t own a car or are unable to drive, getting from one place to another may be a challenge (at best) or impossible (at worst), if public transit doesn’t exist where you live or work. People with disabilities face many barriers to transportation and in rural areas, it can be particularly difficult.
In Vermont, there are ten different transit providers, each with their own system of routes and fares. Only the most populated area has ADA Complimentary Paratransit. Other regions use Deviated Fixed Routes and Demand Response Routes to meet the needs of people who need accessible transportation. If transit exists in your area, traveling locally may not be too difficult. But it becomes much more challenging when traveling from one region to another. Except for a few commuter routes and some intrastate routes, it’s very difficult to get from one region of the state to another. Yet, this is often necessary for employment, medical appointments, and even shopping. In Vermont, crossing county lines is routine. Accessible transportation is problematic for evenings, weekends, and holidays though.
I once assisted a person using a wheelchair trying to figure out how to do just this. Greyhound and other interstate bus services are very limited (and subsidized by Vermont). For this rider, there was a connection that worked. The local transit provider got him to the Greyhound bus terminal. Greyhound has limited stops in Vermont, but fortunately, one of them was at the Burlington airport. From there, he had family members who picked him up.
Where ADA paratransit exists, for a long time, it was almost like a taxi service. There was usually only one person on the van. Everyone understands that the more riders on an accessible (or any other) vehicle, the lower the cost per trip. But for there to be several people, not everyone is going to get the pick-up and arrival times they want. The feeling of some is, “It’s OK, as long as I’m not the one who is late or early”!
Because most of the state is rural, volunteer drivers are used whenever possible for Medicaid Transportation (Non Emergency Medical Transportation – NEMT), and for the Elderly and Disabled Transportation (E&D) Program (5310). This is often viewed as the most cost effective way of providing this vital transportation. New Route Match software was implemented to better coordinate trips to get more than one person on the bus. Initially, it was a disaster! It was complicated to get the software to be integrated into all the different routes and programs (including Medicaid) and the E&D Program, and to train staff. Most of the software’s “systemic problems” (bugs) have been worked out and complaints are down. But it’s hard to tell if things have improved, or if people have just given up. At least one rider felt with the new system, they were being treated like a package, rather than a person.
Lack of transportation in rural areas has a significant negative impact on people with disabilities. It limits access to jobs, essential services and limits social connections. Unfortunately, the E&D program prioritizes types of rides the money can be used for. Critical Care (dialysis and cancer treatment) is first, Non-Medicaid (NEMT – medical appointments) next, and then shopping. So if someone wants to visit friends or go to a social event, they usually can’t use E&D funds. Research clearly indicates that if a person can’t maintain social connections, their health deteriorates, thus raising health care costs. It will be important to change this policy to enable people with disabilities to use transit for maintaining social connections.
The future brings other challenges to Vermont. Rural areas are dependent on volunteer drivers and in most parts of the state it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and recruit volunteers (the vetting process is also expensive). However, without those volunteer drivers, much of the transportation in rural areas would cease to exist. Technology may make it easier for riders to navigate Vermont’s patchwork of transit providers and routes. In the future, an app on your smart phone would tell you when and where the next bus will be. This plan is just now being explored, so it won’t be implemented for at least a year. Transportation Networking Companies (TNCs) are growing in Vermont, but not as fast as other states (including subcontracting to provide paratransit). The two TNCs here are Uber and Lyft. There is limited guidance in our state as to how they should operate and they are only available in the two largest cities. But the technology (like transit) lagging behind in rural areas is a major barrier. Some parts of Vermont still don’t have cell service!
I would be remiss if we didn’t mention Amtrak. Like most other states, some stations are accessible to everyone while others aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a work in progress. Some people with disabilities use it, but unfortunately, access is much more limited here for those in scooters and wheelchairs!
Peter Johnke is NCIL Transportation Subcommittee Co-Chair. He also serves as the Public Transit Advocate for Vermont Center for Independent Living (VCIL), located in Montpelier, Vermont and is active with VT SILC. Peter can be reached at email@example.com. Follow his blog at journeyofacarlesstraveler.com.