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Keeping residents mobile by car, bus and planning

Seniors and others who don't drive get around for a few dollars on transit services just for them.

By STEPHEN NOHLGREN
Published August 25, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
Gulfport Extended Minibus Service driver Bruce VonHoff helps passenger Edith Harris as she walks down the stairs of the bus.

GULFPORT - Kathryne Wittine gave up her 14-year-old Buick Regal four years ago. She was 81 and recently widowed. An incurable eye disease kept her from discerning shapes and letters in bright light.

Life still offered pleasures - vigorous walks, a prolific garden behind her bungalow and cartons of books, waiting to be read when the light was right.

But there was no diminishing her loss. That Buick was her connection to the outside world. Her son wanted her to move near family in Maine, but she refused.

"This has been my home for 27 years," she says. "I'll stay here independent as long as I can."

The city of Gulfport aims to help. Whenever Wittine wants to buy groceries or check out library books, the city dispatches a faded workhorse of a minibus, resplendent in chipped paint and rusty dings. It carts her around for $3 a ride, or unlimited rides for $120 a year - the equivalent of seven fillups on the old Buick.

The bus driver calls her by name.

The Tampa Bay area rarely draws raves for public transportation. It's spread out. It has no civic hub for all bus lines to converge on. Sandy, soggy ground will never support a subway.

Nevertheless, a patchwork of little-known programs stands ready to help people who don't drive. Every day, thousands of Tampa Bay residents travel door to door at prices that put taxis to shame.

These services have their drawbacks - like lack of weekend coverage. But as the region continues to age, they are vital first steps in keeping residents like Wittine on the go.

In Gulfport, residents 55 and older can go anywhere they want within the city, and take regular trips to nearby shopping areas, St. Petersburg medical complexes, Tyrone Mall and Wal-Mart.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, volunteers for the American Red Cross drive people to medical appointments for free.

Throughout Tampa Bay, county transit systems provide door-to-door service for people who cannot ride the regular bus. The customer might be blind or frail or just someone who can't walk to the bus stop.

Sadie Galego, 103, rides from her Seminole home to the Clearwater YMCA several times a week to swim. Another woman pays $5 round-trip to ride from Tarpon Springs to her hairdresser in Pinellas Park.

In Citrus County, door-to-door bus service extends to everyone, regardless of age or physical condition. People must schedule in advance and only on weekdays, but trips cost as little as $1.50 one way.

"This is the best-kept secret in the county," says Cathy Pearson, director for community support services in Citrus. "Pretty much, you call and we are going to get you there. We are thinking about extending to Saturday."

Regular bus service can't help most people who give up driving because of medical conditions, says Joan Harris, of the National Highway Transit Safety Administration. "They have to walk six blocks, stand in 90-degree heat, make a big step up in the bus and before they have a chance to sit down, the bus lurches forward."

That's where door-to-door service comes in.

Herb Guinup starts his shift at Yellow Cab of Clearwater at 5 a.m. Over the next eight or 10 hours, he will ferry customers for the Demand Response program, which Yellow Cab runs for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

The PSTA pays Guinup $7 for each Demand Response customer. The customer pays another $2.50. A regular rider to the airport would pay $30, but Guinup would have to sit and wait for those calls to dribble in.

Demand Response customers schedule their trips a day in advance. With 35 to 40 drivers circulating Pinellas at once, dispatchers can bunch customers closely together, both by location and pickup times. Guinup's dance card is full.

Marie Simpkins, 77, is ready to go when he pulls up to her Largo mobile home at 9:30 a.m. She's off to visit her 83-year-old husband Daniel, who is in the hospital. A retired office worker from Staten Island, N.Y., she gave up driving four years ago.

"There were too many cars on the road," she says. "I got nervous. I thought I would kill somebody or they would kill me."

Many door-to-door services restrict the purpose of the ride. American Red Cross, for example, takes people only to medical appointments.

Demand Response is an adjunct to the regular bus system. Whatever times of day regular buses run through a neighborhood, door-to-door service is also available for those who qualify. And they can go anywhere.

"People can ride to the bar if they want to," says Bud Williams, who runs Demand Response. "Bingo is really big. Every day, somebody is going to bingo."

At 12:20, Guinup picks up a woman at a Largo assisted living home that specializes in Alzheimer's patients. He takes her to her daughter's office in Clearwater. The woman isn't quite sure where she is going, but Guinup is quiet and gentle. When they arrive, he escorts her inside and makes sure a receptionist knows she is there.

Demand Response drivers don't play doctor, but they are trained to spot signs of medical trouble, Guinup says. His passengers have suffered seizures and heart attacks. He says one woman let him know as she slumped to the seat:

"Oh, Herbie, I don't feel well."

With only 13,000 residents, Gulfport enjoys a sense of community. It has a dance hall, old brick streets and a certifiable downtown, where residents stroll among art galleries on balmy evenings. So it's no surprise that Gulfport would spend a dollop of tax money to keep its older citizens mobile.

A 9-year-old International Harvester minibus and a black Ford Crown Victoria make about 15,000 trips a year, carrying people 55 and older around town and to nearby medical offices.

Within Gulfport, passengers can pick their own times. Morning and afternoon jaunts to South Pasadena shopping areas operate on set schedules, as do medical trips to St. Petersburg.

Helen Zborowski, 88, gave up her car a few years ago after a fender bender. She figures she saves hundreds of dollars on gas, insurance and maintenance. Besides, the minibus offers companionship.

"I like meeting people. You get to talk to somebody, especially if you live by yourself. When you just talk to yourself, you're not all there."

She also notices something new about Gulfport: It's full of trees.

"Look at all the greenery," she says, staring out the window. "I never saw it when I was driving."

Driver Bruce VanHoff, a tanned 59-year-old, played for the Houston Astros in the 1960s. Now he extends his pitching arm to escort older woman down steps and across sidewalks. He places a wooden box wrapped in duct tape in front of the bus door, to help people step up. He carries their groceries to their front door.

Passengers are usually congenial and grateful around town, he says. When the Crown Victoria takes groups to St. Petersburg for doctor appointments, "it can get a little tense. Somebody cuts it a little close to their appointment time and they start arguing. They'll say, "I got to go first."'

Like most of Gulfport's door-to-door passengers, Jean Berger lives in Town Shores, a massive retirement complex on Boca Ciega Bay. About every sixth Gulfport resident lives there.

Berger rides the minibus every day - shopping, to the senior center and to her volunteer stint at Neighborly Care Network's group dining center. Her only complaint is lack of weekend service.

VanHoff takes her home after one trip, then picks her up 30 minutes later so she can dole out food at the group dining center.

"All right, Mother Teresa," he says. "Back to work."

Getting around

Some older people find regular bus systems hard, if not impossible, to navigate. To help people get around, various government and private agencies provide door-to-door rides for little or no fees.

Some older people find regular bus systems hard, if not impossible, to navigate. To help people get around, various government and private agencies provide door-to-door rides for little or no fees.

The list below offers a partial summary of those services. It does not include transportation of Medicaid beneficiaries to doctor visits. It does not include social service agencies that transport clients to their programs. It does not include hospitals, clinics, churches or other volunteer groups that offer free transportation.

Most of these services transport people who use wheelchairs as well as ambulatory people.

Demand Response (formerly DART)

  • Service: Door-to-door rides for any purpose, anywhere regular buses travel in the county.
  • Hours: Same as PSTA bus service hours in each neighborhood.
  • Cost: $2.50 each way. (Caregivers ride free.)
  • Eligibility: Unable to use regular bus system. Must register in advance.
  • Reservations: Before 5 p.m. the day before.
  • Phone: (727) 530-9921, then press 2.

GEMS-Gulfport

  • Service: Door-to-door rides within Gulfport and as far north as 38th Avenue N. Daily trips to South Pasadena shopping area and downtown St. Petersburg. Monthly trips to Tyrone Square Mall and Wal-Mart.
  • Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Cost: $3 each way. Unlimited rides for $120 a year.
  • Eligibility: Gulfport resident 55 or older.
  • Reservations: 48 hours in advance.
  • Phone: (727) 893-2242.
Community transportation
  • Service: Door-to-door rides anywhere for doctor visits, grocery shopping, employment and job-related education.
  • Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week.
  • Cost: $3 each way.
  • Eligibility: Unable to ride the regular bus. Cannot afford or secure private transportation. Income must not exceed twice the federal poverty line (about $1,340 per month for one person). Must register in advance.
  • Reservations: 48 hours in advance.
  • Phone: (727) 545-2100.

American Red Cross

  • Service: Door-to-door trips for medical appointments and therapies.
  • Hours: Mornings only. Return trips must begin no later than 11:30 a.m.
  • Cost: Free (donations accepted).
  • Eligibility: Anyone who is ambulatory and needs help.
  • Reservations: Two weeks in advance.
  • Phone: Upper Pinellas, (727) 446-2358; Lower Pinellas, (727) 898-3111.
[Last modified August 25, 2003, 08:36:19]


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