Elizabeth A. Bishop, 67, hasn't had a car for seven years, and there is no public transportation in the rural area of south-central Pennsylvania where she lives alone. She relies on blue-and-white vans from a shared-ride service to get to her doctor's office, hair appointments and the grocery store.
Being able to get around without relying on family or friends "makes you feel independent," said the McConnellsburg resident. "I don't know what I would do if we didn't have it."
Shared-ride services, which operate in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, provide door-to-door transportation for people 65 and older, similar to a taxi service. Rides usually must be scheduled at least a day in advance, and often several passengers are transported in the same trip.
The program is operated by local government agencies or nonprofits and funded by state lottery revenues, which cover 85 percent of the fare. Riders pay most of the rest of the cost; the agency often contributes a portion.
In areas where public transportation is available, lottery funds pay for people 65 and older to ride buses, subways and trolleys free of charge.
Nearly one in four Pennsylvanians will be 65 or older by 2030, according to census projections, and the state has one of the country's largest rural populations, leaving many people without access to bus or rail service.
Maintaining funding for the program is a priority, said Desiree Hung, AARP Pennsylvania associate state director for advocacy. "Without transportation options, you're condemning people to solitary confinement."
4.5 million subsidized rides
About $70 million in lottery funds subsidized nearly 4.5 million rides statewide last year. Ridership has declined slightly in recent years, in part because hours of operation in some counties have been reduced to shave costs, said Ray Landis, AARP Pennsylvania advocacy manager. Soaring gas prices and flat state funding also have strained the budgets of the agencies that run the services.
AARP Pennsylvania is part of the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition, which is pushing for a comprehensive solution to the state's multibillion-dollar transportation needs, including stable funding for shared rides.
"We want to make sure the issues that are important to seniors are included" in transportation plans, said AARP Pennsylvania spokesman Steve Gardner.
Hours cut back
The Huntingdon-Bedford-Fulton Area Agency on Aging, which runs the service Bishop uses, has a fleet of vans and buses that covers an area of more than 2,000 square miles.
The agency has left vacant positions unfilled, reduced hours, raised fares and cut back on in-home care services to keep the ride service running, said Alan Smith, the agency's executive director. But despite a 25 percent fare increase in November, the agency has not raised the $3.50 round-trip fee for shared-ride patrons, Smith said.
Farther north, the orange buses of the Area Transportation Authority (ATA) of North Central Pennsylvania travel over more than 5,000 square miles in seven counties.
CEO Michael Imbrogno said the service is needed more than ever as retail shops and grocery stores move farther from town centers.
Without public transit, many older Pennsylvanians could not stay in their homes, he said. "We are an antidote for rural isolation."
Marion Mazenko, 75, of Coalport, uses the ATA shared-ride service almost daily to go to the senior center for lunch.
"You don't have to get worried about how you're going to get somewhere or do something," said Mazenko, who lives alone and stopped driving about five years ago.
She praised the camaraderie of the riders and the helpfulness of the drivers.
"It's my escape," she said. "I'm grateful that it's there."
But rising costs have meant that ATA has had to reduce its already bare-bones service, Imbrogno said. So far the agency has not cut any routes entirely, but hours have been reduced and services combined. Imbrogno said capital repairs have been postponed so long that he is expecting half a dozen buses to fail inspection, further reducing service.
Hilary Appelman is a writer living in State College, Pa.
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