Accessible transit coalition seeks innovative solutions for elderly, disabled

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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In an era of shrinking public budgets, how will disabled and elderly people keep moving?

By turning to existing community resources like schools, churches and private businesses — and coming up with other creative solutions that haven’t been devised yet.

That’s the mission of a new Accessible Transportation Coalition that held its organizational meeting Tuesday and Wednesday at the Fisher’s Landing Transit Center.

“Are there options in the private sector? Are there other options around school districts and the buses that are carrying students some of the day but not all day?” wondered Colleen Kuhn, executive director of the Human Services Council. “We know we are going to have funding cuts. We know we need to reduce our reliance on the state. What are our options?”

Two dozen representatives of Southwest Washington’s disabled and senior citizen communities came together with transit officials for the strategy session aimed at keeping the least independent citizens getting where they need to go. Agencies from C-Tran to Clark County Cab and Indian tribes to the Arc of Southwest Washington were all on hand, along with private advocates for seniors and the disabled.

Passing C-Tran’s sales-tax-increasing ballot measure, Proposition 1, on Nov. 8 is on top of the priority list for people who rely on public transit, according to C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm. But that’s not all.

Connectivity with neighboring communities and transit systems — so people in rural Cowlitz, Skamania, Klickitat and Wahkiakum counties can make it to jobs and medical specialists in Vancouver and Portland — came up again and again as stakeholders kicked off the meeting with lists of their greatest concerns.

Also mentioned were looming budget cuts if the C-Tran measure doesn’t pass, convenient schedules for students and workers, access for veterans and the blind, and continued independence for seniors who live at home.

“I would like to keep people as long as possible in their own homes, with opportunities to do the things they enjoy doing,” said Judy Canter, a geriatric social worker. Older people’s lives often revolve around medical situations and doctor appointments, she pointed out; in addition to easy access to these necessities, she said, people should have access to recreation and enjoyment, too.

By 2025, according Kuhn, one in four Clark County residents will be 60 years old or older.

Another priority: figuring out how to make the whole system financially sustainable so, as Arc Executive Director Jesse Dunn put it, public transit still exists 10 years from now.

That may require some truly innovative thinking, Kuhn said. For example, C-Tran isn’t the area’s only formal transit system, she said; there are school district bus systems, medical transports and commercial cab services. And there are plenty of informal possibilities, including church groups, fraternal organizations and other volunteers, that might become a little more formal during this time of increased need.

The two-day session was paid for by a grant from Easter Seals Project Action and hosted by C-Tran and the Human Services Council, which operates an extensive special-needs transportation program. It was one of just 10 such sessions held around the nation. According to Easter Seals facilitator Donna Smith, not every community is ready for this kind of work, but Clark County won a grant because it has done impressive transportation planning and coalition building already.

Transportation plans have been fashioned by everyone from C-Tran to Clark County’s own Aging Readiness Task Force to other human service groups in neighboring counties. One of the Accessible Transportation Coalition’s first homework assignments is to study and reconcile all those plans and their funding sources, Kuhn of the Human Services Council said.

The group also will look to Easter Seals Project Action for examples of other communities that have made progress on accessible transportation, she said. By the end of 2012, Kuhn said, the group wants to have a demonstration project prepared and ready to go. Meanwhile, members of the group are also developing what they refer to as an “elevator speech” on the issue.

What’s an elevator speech? It’s a briefing short enough to deliver during your daily vertical commute, of course.

“We want to be able to talk to the broader community about this,” she said. “We are really focusing on public-private partnerships.”

To avoid confusion and entropy, the group plans to stick with its current membership, although some additional stakeholders may still be invited to join. The Easter Seals organization will continue to provide technical support and guidance until the end of 2012, facilitator Smith said.

The next meeting of the Accessible Transportation Coalition is set for Jan. 12.

To learn more about Easter Seals Project Action, visit http://projectaction.easterseals.com. To learn more about the Human Services Council and its transportation offerings, visit http://hsc-wa.org.