Keeping stride with senior bus riders

The Carroll County bus system will release a five-year plan with route and fare suggestions

October 01, 2006|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Photo by Colby Ware [Special to the Sun]

Keeping pace with top riders Mary Jane Hai, 75, a widow for 18 years, never bothered to get her driver's license.

Georgiana Ansart, 84, didn't want the stress of getting lost when she moved from Florida to Westminster four months ago.

And Donald Staub, 84, likes to have his breakfast at Wal-Mart everyday and then spend each afternoon lunching and dozing in the food court of the TownMall of Westminster.

All three are regular riders on the Carroll Area Transit System buses and vans.

Seniors depend on the transit system to get around, as the county's elderly population grows.

Without the system's popular Westminster Shopper Shuttle, they couldn't buy groceries or visit the library. It's a weekly, if not daily, part of their lives.

"We don't know what we'd do without it," said Hai, who moved from Towson to downtown Westminster after her husband died. "The only thing I ever drove was a two-wheel bicycle."

The nonprofit system plans to add a fourth shuttle route, from Taneytown to Westminster, by the end of 2006, according to Neal C. Roop, the system's president.

The two other fixed routes - around South Carroll and from Eldersburg to Westminster - are struggling to gain more passengers, he said.

All routes are busiest at the start of each month, when passengers receive Social Security, retirement and assistance checks.

At each Westminster shopping center stop, women board the bus with heavy green tote bags, brimming with groceries.

"I'm getting too old for this nonsense," said Del Sabella, 81, catching her breath.

Since public transportation began in Carroll County in 1974 - with a 15-passenger van through the Bureau of Aging - the system has expanded to a 37-vehicle fleet, with 25 of those vans and buses outfitted with ramps or lifts to transport the disabled. The system has operated as a nonprofit organization since 1984.

"It's always a challenge to meet everyone's needs," Roop said. "We could use another five buses. We're constantly looking for used buses in good shape."

The transit system's new five-year master plan will be released this spring, with suggestions for additional routes and restructuring fares.

The system charges $1 each way for the shuttles. When called a few days in advance, the buses will drop residents off at doctors' offices and hospitals, for $2 a ride.

The system made more than 150,000 trips last year, logging in almost 750,000 miles, Roop said.

Low-income residents are eligible for free rides through state medical assistance funds.

"We try to accommodate everybody," Roop said.

While most Baltimore metropolitan counties run their own transit systems, Carroll chooses to contract services through the nonprofit.

The Carroll system runs more frequently and is more reliable than the bus lines in Dundalk and Baltimore City, said Jean Davis, a passenger on the Westminster shuttle recently.

She moved from O'Donnell Heights to Locust House in Westminster four months ago.

"It's good for me. It comes right to the door and picks me up," Davis, 62, said. "I have lung problems, so I can't walk all over the place."

Uncapped insurance costs once ate up the system's funds, Roop said, but that situation has improved since July 1.

That's when the county got the agency listed under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, Roop said. Insurance costs are limited to $62,000 this year, compared with almost $220,000 in fiscal year 2006, he said.

"It just helps our overall operation, all our services," Roop said.

The system's total operating budget this year is $1.9 million - $700,000 of which comes from the county's annual contract with the transit system.

Some of the system's buses are aging and have put in about 250,000 miles, Roop said.

Sterling Garrett, one of the veteran drivers, said pot-holed side roads in Westminster can make for a bumpy ride.

He tries to dodge those patches for the Shoppers Shuttle passengers.

"It really bounces the wheels," said Garrett, 74, who has driven a van for 19 years. "At the age these people are, it's hard on their backs."

Ansart agreed with Garrett.

"We want a new bus," she said, smiling. "This thing shakes, rattles and rolls."

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