For nondrivers, getting a lift may get easier

Funding increase would expand county ride service

May 23, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Legally blind, Harts Brown is part of a growing group that depends on two Howard County public transportation services for disabled and lower-income residents.

At 7: 20 on a Monday morning, he is fixing a cup of coffee in his Columbia apartment, waiting for a HATS-RIDE vehicle that will take him and others into Baltimore as often as three days a week for appointments such as the dental visit he has in three hours.

Run by Howard Area Transit Service (HATS), HATS-RIDE and HATS-ADAPT serve disabled, elderly and social services clients who, because of physical or economic reasons, don't have cars, a handicap in a suburb where people often live far from the services they need.

Growing demand for such services recently prompted the county executive to include $1.2 million in next year's budget for them, a 34 percent increase that will help pay for an expansion. HATS-RIDE usage has risen to 52,011 rides so far this fiscal year, 2 percent more than last fiscal year, while HATS-ADAPT has provided 17,818 rides, an 80 percent increase.

Brown helped lobby for the additional funds.

"I've been riding this transportation for 15 years," says Brown, 76, who sometimes has appointments at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "It's a good thing because now I have to go [into Baltimore] regularly, more than before. It would be a problem if you didn't have this, because you'd have to depend on friends to get you into town."

To expand HATS-RIDE service and make it more flexible, county officials are considering two rides into Baltimore -- one in the early morning and the other closer to noon -- five days a week.

Riders are now limited to what they can accomplish between the time they are dropped off downtown by 10 a.m. and when the bus returns at 1 p.m. HATS-ADAPT, while restricted to Howard County, runs for longer hours six days a week. Ride programs that serve disabled people, such as the HATS programs, are often called para-transit. HATS-RIDE is geared to appointments, while HATS-ADAPT is geared toward more general use.

"Some of the people exclusively use para-transit," says Pete Hefler, interim director of Corridor Transportation Corp., which manages HATS for the county. "And they feel that the three days a week [for HATS-RIDE] was too restrictive."

To use HATS-RIDE, passengers like Brown must call Yellow Transportation Corp., the company that operates the HATS system, 24 hours in advance. When the vehicle, which resembles a van with the shell of a bus tacked to the back, arrives, they should have a ticket or a dollar.

Riders must be ready by 7: 30 a.m., so Brown is awake after less than two hours of sleep, having stayed up most of the night fixing his computer. "At my age," he says, "that's not good."

But he is dressed and watching "Good Morning America" when the driver arrives at 7: 44, beeping the horn. Is it going to rain? Brown needs to find a jacket.

"OK," he says as he goes to pick up the ringing phone after the second honk. It's the dispatcher from HATS. "Could you please tell him that I'm going to be out there in a minute?"

Elderly passengers get three minutes to board, and disabled passengers have five.

Under pressure, Brown clicks a button to turn off the lights, fumbles with the lock and gets his cane. He treads slowly toward the bus, waving the cane as if he were hosing down the worn grass on each side of the walkway.

He walks up to the driver and hugs him like an old friend. He's an ex-Marine named Arnold who drove these routes regularly before becoming a dispatcher in January and still does on occasion when the regular driver is out.

The affectionate tone is not unusual on the HATS-RIDE service. Passengers often send cookies and other gifts to the Yellow Transportation staff, which in turn has been known to send cards of condolence to the relatives of riders who pass away.

One of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Brown began losing vision in his left eye during World War II, when a baseball struck him while he was walking home from dinner. Over the years, his right eye has caught a fist, a jabbed stick and a discharged cork from a champagne bottle.

His driving days ended in 1985 after a trip to a 7-Eleven. "I didn't have my driver's license, and I almost ran underneath a tractor-trailer," Brown says.

Eight seats

He's the first one to board. The vehicle has eight seats and a wheelchair lift in the rear. As a radio blares, Brown buckles up and prepares for the ride that can take an hour or more.

The bus moves along to the second stop, the home of Susan Moore, 39, a resident of the Village of Wilde Lake who has an appointment at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Moore says she has been using the service off and on for five years.

From Wilde Lake, Brown and Moore rumble along U.S. 29 to U.S. 40, where the next stop awaits in Ellicott City. Out comes Kathy Gallaghan, who says she would drive or take a bus if she could. But she broke her neck and suffered other major injuries in a car accident nearly two years ago.

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