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Aging population strains transit service

March 11, 2019

DOVER, N.H. (AP) — Pat Schiro used to walk all the time, even from her urban Dover home to the center of Durham and back as she prepared to walk the full length of the first Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in 1998 that she completed in her late 60s.

But now nearing 88, Pat Schiro, walks with a cane and has trouble seeing. She has a macular degeneration and gave up driving a couple of years ago after a cataract surgery seemed to make her eyesight worse. While her friends can sometimes help, “You can only ask so many people to give you a ride,” said the retired Dover school teacher.

Then she learned of COAST’s Americans with Disabilities Act on-demand paratransit service, which provides origin to destination rides to those who qualify for the assistance. “I consider it a lifesaver,” Schiro said. Now when she needs to get to a doctor’s appointment that’s not at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital or to an exercise class at the Dover Senior Center, she schedules a ride with COAST. “Otherwise I would be stuck,” she said.

Schiro is part of a growing population of seniors with disabilities that keep them from walking to a bus stop for COAST’s fixed-route bus service.

The nonprofit COAST, which stands for Cooperative Alliance for Seacoast Transportation, provides public transportation in 10 Seacoast communities in vehicles that are all ADA accessible.

While the ADA paratransit service is required by the ADA because COAST receives federal funding, its Executive Director Rad Nichols said it is “privileged and proud” to provide it. “Helping these individuals with their transportation needs is one of the most rewarding things we do at COAST,” he said.

But the increasing demand is straining COAST and federal funding for the program has not kept up with that increased demand, Nichols said.

In 2008, annual ridership of COAST’s ADA program was 1,770. By 2018, it increased to 17,370 annual riders, according to figures provided by Nichols. During the same time, the total program expenses jumped from $134,364 to more than $1.1 million.

The ADA service is geared to anyone with a qualifying disability, but Nichols says an aging population is driving the explosive growth in the service use over the past decade. That cohort doesn’t appear to be slowing with projections that nationwide approximately 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 years old every day through 2030.

Nichols has heard the suggestion the ADA population could rely on private transportation services, such as Uber and Lyft. But he sees a few challenges of relying on those services alone. Many of the ADA population could not afford such a ride service, he said. Another issue that Uber and Lyft, despite having an influx of investment money, have struggled to remain profitable. Plus, he said, many of these vehicles are not fully accessible for all with disabilities.

The cost to COAST to provide the ADA rides is not cheap. Rides can cost upward of $65 for a trip, accounting for the total operating cost, such as labor, maintenance, insurance and administration. But COAST can typically only charge $3, which is double of its fixed-route bus service fare.

“There is not a simple fix to the financial challenges we face related to providing these services,” Nichols said. “The provision of these services are simply a part of the business model for public transit today. We strive to provide these services as efficiently as possible so to maximize our effectiveness in meeting the demand.”

Betsey Andrews Parker, CEO of the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Strafford County said COAST’s ADA service provides a critical transportation link for those with disabilities. “They are using the ADA service as their lifeline to get around,” she said.

Nichols said much of the ADA service doesn’t originate from a particular location, like senior housing. Instead, many are picked up at the individual’s residences. Andrews Parker also sees seniors aging in place as a growing trend because of the cost of retirement housing. “There are very few options to move to a place to be independent that’s affordable,” she said.

Andrews Parker said it’s critical to have supports in place, such as COAST’s ADA service, to assist people who have worked all their lives so they can remain in their homes. And the transportation can’t just be for medical appointments, she said. It also needs to be for things that bring them joy, like Schiro’s exercise classes.

“I wouldn’t be able to go to those classes if I didn’t have that service,” Schiro said.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2CpRPav

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Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com

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