Demand grows for South County on-demand bus service
By Carrie Napoleon Post-Tribune correspondent July 28, 2014 11:04PM
Jennifer Halcarz, a bus driver for South Lake County Community Services, helps Elouise Pompey of Merrillville off the bus at the Merrillville Senior Center. Pompey would not be able to get around without the bus. | Carrie Napoleon~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 19, 2014 2:01AM
Terry Yates said she does not know what she would do if the on-demand bus service offered by South Lake County Community Services was not available.
“I don’t know. I’d probably go crazy,” said Yates, of Merrillville.
The bus recently dropped her and a group of seniors off at the Merrillville Senior Citizens Center in Merrillville High School where they congregate, participate in informational programs, play games and have lunch provided by Meals on Wheels.
Yates, like most of the seniors at the center, relies heavily on the bus service to get around town, to doctors’ appointments and to the grocery story. She has been using it for nine years.
“We couldn’t get around without it,” said Ruby Dowell of Merrillville. “We use the bus every day to come here and go other places or to other events in the community.”
The pair is not alone. Demand outpaces availability for the Dial-A-Ride service, leaving many in need of transportation seeking other options.
Cedar Creek Township Trustee Alice Dahl said there is not enough availability to service all the Lowell area residents in need of service. Dahl said the trustee’s office is left to arrange transportation for those in need who are unable to get to their important medical appointments.
“I know it is very needed. There is more demand than there is availability,” Dahl said.
Lack of adequate public transportation leaves residents without cars in small rural communities like Shelby and Schneider unable to get to employment opportunities elsewhere.
“I wish we had transportation to get them to jobs,” Dahl said.
Margot Sabato, executive director of South Lake County Community Services, said the agency provides Dial-A-Ride bus service to nine of the 11 Lake County townships.
“We typically do between 4,000 to 5,000 one-way trips a month. We turn people away very often,” she said.
Buses quickly fill up with riders who need trips to doctors’ appointments or to kidney dialysis. While the service is available to take people to their jobs or places like the grocery store, little space is left over to do so after the medical appointments.
“I would in a heartbeat put 10 more buses on without a problem,” Sabato said.
Recently, the Regional Development Authority approved a $300,000 grant to the agency as a local match to secure $1.1 million in federal funding for capital purchases that have been outlined in the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commissions Transportation Improvement Plan.
The funding will be dispersed to the SLCCS over three years and will be used to purchase new buses, software and for maintenance on the existing fleet. Sabato said the agency will purchase six new buses in 2015, four in 2016 and two more in 2017. The funds can only be used for capital projects and not operational costs.
“The RDA funds will not be used to put fuel in the gas tank,” Sabato said.
Lack of additional funding for operational costs makes increasing service impossible at this time. Each bus costs about $60,000 to $70,000 to operate between the salary for the driver and the cost of the fuel, she said.
The RDA funds will help the agency keep its fleet of 14 buses on the road. Each bus has a service life of about 100,000 miles before the cost for repairs to the vehicle and its accessories, such as a wheel chair lift, become cost prohibitive and breakdowns begin to interrupt services.
Sabato said demand for the service is so high, any interruption for maintenance can cause real problems for users.
Even with the towns, cities and county’s kicking in to the agency’s budget for operations, money remains tight.
“There just isn’t local money available to do a service expansion,” she said.