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Transportation: Cuts to bus service impact handicapped riders
By Jason Lesley
A member of a task force formed to help Coast RTA better serve local residents says she’s disappointed with decisions that will not bring bus service to neighborhoods that need it.
Suzanne Harris, a resident of Heritage Plantation, joined the task force last June hoping to have buses turn off Highway 17 and travel back roads to pick up riders. A news release from Coast RTA said the existing fixed route system is inadequate for the community’s transportation needs, particularly for transient-dependent residents. “The elderly, disabled and economically disadvantaged are especially vulnerable,” according to the bus service’s statement.
Beginning Dec. 1, Coast RTA said it will eliminate a service called CATS-Plus that provides 109 handicapped clients with door-to-door transportation. CATS stands for “Citizens Accessible Transportation.”
“Unfortunately,” Harris said, “I’m not as excited about the task force, or hopeful even, as I was in the beginning. Disappointed would be a really good word I could use. Buses are not going into communities where they’re needed.” Harris said Coast RTA is focusing on building a new hub in Myrtle Beach and instituting a room tax that will finance a new bus service for tourists. “What about the taxpayers, the people you are still driving past?” Harris asked. “Coast RTA is the only one, outside ambulance services, who has the ability to transport someone in a wheelchair to get dialysis or oncology treatments. The list goes on and on. There are so many people up in Horry so disenchanted with the whole thing.”
Myers Rollins Jr., general manager and CEO of Coast RTA, said the grant funding CATS-Plus was not renewed, and the program would be cost prohibitive using funds from his operating budget.
“It is true that we are eliminating the CATS-Plus program,” Rollins said. “The program is one that I created a little over a year ago in an effort to provide increased mobility for people with disabilities living outside the CATS service area.” Federal law, Rollins said, requires public transit systems to offer curb-to-curb service for residents certified as disabled living within three-fourths of a mile of a fixed bus route. “That service won’t change,” Rollins said.
He said CATS-Plus was a “glorified chauffeur service” for the handicapped who did not live near a bus route. It cost $25,000 a month to operate. The average ride cost $76, Rollins said, with riders paying $6 per trip. “We created it with all good will, good intentions,” he said. “I would not have been able to do it last year without the Community Development block grant.”
Harris said she expects much of the additional transportation burden to fall on the faith-based, non-profit program Neighbor to Neighbor. Its volunteers use their own vehicles to drive chronically ill adults to doctor’s offices, to shop or run errands or for quality-of-life appointments. Neighbor to Neighbor has provided 14,000 free rides to residents of the Waccamaw Neck and Horry County since 2008, according to executive director Joe Kunkel.
He said Neighbor to Neighbor’s directors are studying the facts regarding needs once the CATS-Plus program is eliminated. “It’s part of Coast RTA’s decision to make that call,” Kunkel said. “We’re just trying to see how to play a positive role in future transportation needs.”
Three Neighbor to Neighbor staff members coordinate 157 volunteer drivers with people who need rides.