Thursday, April 25, 2013

Marin grand jury: transit for seniors inadequate

By Nels Johnson, Marin Independent Journal -

Transportation services fail to make the grade for Marin's elderly residents, the civil grand jury concludes in a new report.

The panel — citing a jumble of transit services it says seniors are unaware of or find hard to navigate, as well as dissatisfaction with those they know about — called for a host of improvements, ranging from more fixed route and shuttle bus, van and "catch-a-ride" programs to a host of scheduling, publicity and other improvements.

More frequent service is needed for seniors living on hillsides far from bus stops, and for other seniors seeking to go the the mall, hospital or elsewhere, jurors said.

The jury provided no estimate of the cost of the improvements it recommended, although it outlined state, federal and local tax funds as well as foundation and related grant money as potential sources.

"Existing conventional transportation options for existing seniors are inadequate," the jury said, urging better bus stops and more convenient scheduling, along with an information campaign. On the other hand, "paratransit needs of physically challenged older citizens have been adequately met" with the exception of schedule delays and lack of service in West Marin and portions of East San Rafael.

Is Marin ready to accommodate the growing number of elders who do not drive or have limited their driving?, the jury wondered. "The answer is a resounding 'maybe.'"

"County transportation officials should enrich alternatives not only for those elderly with special needs but also for those healthy nondriving seniors who lack access to transportation," the jury said.

The jury said it drew information from sessions across Marin with nine focus groups totaling 108 seniors; it indicated it interviewed transit providers, citizens and merchants; and it researched websites and made other inquiries. However, the county's top transit official was not contacted, though a staffer was.

"I didn't get any request," said a bewildered David Rzepinski, head of the Marin County Transit District. "I didn't get the opportunity to talk to the jury."

"I don't think they fully understand all our programs," services and financial hurdles, he added. He noted the panel got some details wrong, such as asserting a taxi "catch a ride" program required downloading an application, and that Northgate mall needed a special senior shuttle, when it is already served by a bus from the city transit hub every 15 minutes.

At the same time, "I understand the need for improvement," Rzepinski said, adding that jury service improvement proposals "could be expensive."

The jury report also surprised Terry Scussel, manager of transportation services at Whistlestop Wheels, which provides 500 trips a day to seniors under a county contract. He said that despite criticism of scheduling, Whistlestop posts extremely high performance satisfaction marks from customers. "Granted, it is a ride-share program, so rides can take some time ... but we have people who are very pleased to get a ride," he said.

Among the jury's observations:

• "The older adults for whom Whistlestop was the primary transportation provider repeatedly cited the undue length of time spent in transit and the waiting time to be picked up."

• "There was a widespread unfamiliarity with and misconceptions about other transportation services" and those who did know about alternatives "did not know whom to contact or how to apply."

• "There is an over-reliance on a patchwork quilt of volunteer driver programs."

• Seniors in Marin City, Loch Lomond, Peacock Gap, Bel Marin Keys, Bahia and Black Point as well as West Marin, and those living in hillside areas, need better service.

The jury recommended that the county transit district join with the Transportation Authority of Marin to provide weekend van service, neighborhood, mall and hospital shuttles, and fixed-route or on-call vans benefiting hillside neighborhoods, Marin City and West Marin residents.

Among a host of other proposals, the panel also recommended Whistlestop improve scheduling to reduce waiting time, paratransit and medical appointment shuttle service be increased, taxi voucher service be augmented and improved and expanded, and that publicity programs be overhauled, with efforts translated in a variety of languages.

Barbara Duffy, director of operations for the county transit district, noted the agency provides about 11,000 weekday rides and 5,000 weekend rides each month. In addition, through Whistlestop, it provides about 525 weekday and 150 weekend paratransit rides. Other special services for seniors include two volunteer driver programs that provided 1,100 rides in February, as well as the "catch-a-ride" discount cab program for which 600 seniors are signed up.

County supervisors on Tuesday routinely approved an annual update of the county's "area plan for aging," a document required by the state that details the status of the region's elderly and programs supporting them. The update includes a 10-sentence report on "mobility and transportation," indicating all is well as agencies collaborate on senior transit needs — with an "affordability gap" filled by the "catch-a-ride" program.

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