Recently, Lori Colbo experienced what many local residents would when her car broke down: She had to scramble to find transportation for work, and on the first day made nearly a dozen calls before finding a friend to drive her.

These local volunteers are undergoing training for a soon-to-be-launched program that will help low-income seniors have reliable transportation for core needs. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

Fortunately, on several other days she could take Pierce Transit’s Bus-Plus service from her Vaughn home to Purdy, where she transferred to a bus to Gig Harbor. That took her about two to three hours (including 45-minute waiting, in the cold, at the Purdy transfer point) — but that wasn’t Colbo’s biggest challenge. With a retail schedule, she had no public transportation choices if she worked weekends or late evenings.

“My biggest frustration was on the weekends,” she says. “I think it’s a big mistake (not to have service) because there are a lot of people who have to work on weekends.”

Pierce Transit’s Bus-Plus service has been operational on the Key Peninsula since September 2003, and started out as a pilot project by the agency as a way to provide more cost-efficient service in rural communities. The service operates between Purdy and Home on a “loop” every two to three hours, with some regular stops and some “off-route” ones where the bus only picks up riders who call in advance. “It’s not the most convenient program, but it moves 50 people a day,” says Jean Archer, senior planner with Pierce Transit. “It is the best resource (for an area like the KP) based on available dollars.”

Elsie Vezzani, one of the volunteer drivers, during a recent training session. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

The agency is looking to modify the program by closing several “off-route” stops next year. But there are no plans for expanding the hours of service. Instead, the agency is in discussions with Key Pen’s Mustard Seed Project to provide a community van through the transit’s van share program. For $370 a month plus 33 cents per mile, the community van will be available to Mustard Seed 24 hours a day, though service can only be provided within a 50-mile radius. The van will be equipped with a wheelchair lift. The volunteer drivers will be screened and trained by Pierce Transit, and Mustard Seed will have the option to charge a fare.

Edie Morgan, founder and director of The Mustard Seed Project, said the van will be funded via a one-year seed grant from the Angel Guild. “All of the mechanics of the program are still being determined,” she says. “It will be on a route and schedule.”

The Mustard Seed Project is focused on building an elder-friendly community on the Key Peninsula. Thus, the services of the van will be geared toward eligible seniors (at least in the early stages). “We aren’t going to be the answer to everyone’s last-minute needs,” Morgan says. “I hope at some point (in the future) we can be more responsive.”

Dick and Marlies Van Cise are among the local volunteers who signed up as drivers for seniors who need rides to appointments, shopping, and other essential services. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

The van is not the only project the nonprofit organization has in the works. A transportation committee, chaired by John Nederlee, has been meeting for over a year to discuss the lack of transportation on the KP. As a result, the committee decided to create a survey to better understand the local population’s needs. “The survey went beyond seniors because transportation has been a communitywide issue for a long time,” Morgan says. “It’s time to get real, hard information so we know what the needs are, or at least as perceived by the community.”

In addition to the community van, the implementation of one other program isn’t waiting for survey results. In partnership with Catholic Community Services, The Mustard Seed will start a “volunteer driver” program early this year, also initially focused on low-income seniors. Six volunteer drivers have already been recruited, screened, and are receiving training. “We’re poised (to get started) and just have to find out what the client base will be, after the survey,” says Nederlee, who is also one of the volunteer drivers.

Unlike the community van, which will operate on routes, this will be a door-to-door service, geared to take people to essential places. The drivers will wait for their riders; they will have the option of requesting gas reimbursement based on miles. Riders will need to sign up for a date in advance, and qualify based on their age, income and driving ability.

Key Pen volunteers meet for an orientation session with staff from Catholic Community Services, which will offer the volunteer driver program in partnership with The Mustard Seed Project. Photo by Karina Whitmarsh

“This is designed to serve those most in need of transportation. It is not available to all segments of the general public,” Nederlee says. “We are considering transportation programs which will be much more comprehensive.”

The Mustard Seed has also been involved in regionwide discussions through the Pierce County Coordinated Transportation Coalition, which has been in existence since 1999. The coalition is looking at ways of increasing mobility and access for people who cannot drive due to their age, disability, or income. “We’re trying to find out who’s falling through the cracks, and how to find funding to fill the gap,” says Faith Trindle, a consultant who is coordinating the coalition.

So far, the coalition has focused on the south-east areas of the county, and Trindle says the Key Peninsula is not unique as far as rural areas go, but still more challenging because how spread out it is. She says the coalition is starting discussions on what other ways the peninsula area can be served, but for now it comes down to local leadership.

“There’s a real opportunity for the community to rally,” she says. “…Figure out what the problem is, and transportation experts can try to figure out a system, but it will have to rely on community funds or individuals like volunteers. If the community is tight-knit, there is a really opportunity to do it.”

 

Transportation details  

The Mustard Seed Project encourages all KP residents to fill out its transportation survey, regardless of their age or needs. The survey is available this month as an insert in the Key Peninsula News. For additional copies, contact Edie Morgan at 884-1205.

Details on the new local transportation projects, the community van pool and personal volunteer driving service, will be available as the two programs are closer to implementation — which is expected early this year. Sign-ups will be available at that time through the organization’s Key Senior Information Line.

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