Most public transportation providers will tell you that their service is by no means a money making operation and public transportation rarely, if ever, pays for itself. This is even more the case in rural areas, which are feeling the strain of fewer financial resources even more so than their urban counterparts.
Adding to the financial challenges is the fact that the population is aging, which means there will be more and more people needing transportation services.
As a result, providers are looking for ways to increase their ridership and pool their resources but often rules and regulations governing equipment and funding streams makes this endeavor almost impossible.
How to combine those resources and promote new regulations to make collaboration more of an option was the focus of a two-day Rural Transportation Conference sponsored by AARP New Mexico and the New Mexico Passenger Transportation Association.
“The main focus of the conference was to identify barriers to working together as well as what possible solutions are and if those solutions might require changes in regulations,” said Stan Cooper, AARP New Mexico State Director.
A lot of the barriers are created by the funding that either the state or federal government awards to providers.
“If a senior center receives a grant for two vans to transport the elderly to the center for lunch, often because of the regulations governing that grant, those vans can’t be used for any other purpose, such as an after school program later in the day – even if those vans are just sitting in the parking lot at that time,” Cooper said.
Some of the recommendations providers made at the conference was to reduce such restrictions on the use of vehicles and to fill the seats of transit vehicles already on the road with people that need transportation to a variety of services.
Providers also strongly emphasized that a state transit fund was also very much needed. The fund would allow providers to tap into dollars beyond federal and state grants. For example, often vehicles are provided through federal dollars. However, the grant money can’t be used for operations such as a driver for that van. A state transit fund could be used for those kinds of resources.
Finding a way to combine resources will be even more imperative in time as the aging population is one of the fastest growing segments.
“Census Bureau figures show that by 2030, every four New Mexicans will be age 65 and older with the state having the fourth highest percentage of seniors in the nation. Twenty-six percent of New Mexicans will be 65 or older,” Cooper said.
Kristen Joyner, Southwest Transit Association executive director, who did a presentation at the conference, explained that having transportation options helps individuals who no longer drive have a full quality life but public transportation often falls short.
“We can provide all these great services for our elderly but if they can’t get to them what’s the point,” Joyner said. “Public transportation doesn’t go where people need to go. There are even less options for rural transportation.”
“State and elected officials need to understand that an investment in transit keeps people out of nursing homes and lowers costs to the state. It improves health care. People need a full quality of life beyond being taken to doctors’ appointments. Regular trips to church and other social events are required,” she said.
Cooper said that a more formal report on the recommendations developed at the conference will be forthcoming and once that is finalized a consortium will determine if any proposed legislation will need to be undertaken by the next state legislative session.
“We really want to help make collaboration between providers easier so they can serve more people in the most cost effective and efficient way,” he said.