Pilot County Transit Program Could Increase Senior Mobility

Matthew Hersh

For Griggs Farm resident Alan Grayson, a disabled Korean War veteran, getting around is not as easy as it is for some.

Combine that with the stroke that he suffered in December, and his situation has become that much more challenging.

Nonetheless, Mr. Grayson has to arrange frequent trips to the Veterans Administration's out-patient clinic in Trenton for treatment, and while he can rely on family at times, his relatives cannot always adjust their schedules to accommodate him.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Grayson made a rare trip out to the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC) to see if a new pilot program in Mercer County — only one in four locations throughout the country — could assist him in getting around.

According to the PSRC, the Veterans' clinic in Trenton is just one of the Mercer County destinations identified by the PSRC that residents need to get to, but cannot with current senior transportation vehicles, such as Crosstown 62. Other destinations include the health clinic in Trenton, and the dental clinic in New Brunswick, where low-cost services can be received.

Starting in September, ITN (Independent Transportation Network) will launch its pilot: ITNGreaterMercer, a volunteer driver service for seniors, age 65 and over, and for the visually impaired.

Three other communities, Charleston, S.C., Orlando, Fla., and Santa Monica, Calif., are slated to launch similar programs this fall, all teaming up with local transportation management companies in their areas. In Mercer County's case, ITNGreaterMercer is working with the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association (TMA) in assembling the program.

ITNGreaterMercer is still tweaking some foreseeable problems, primarily that the program's radius is supposed to reach 15 miles, but with Mercer bordering on Hunterdon, Somerset, Monmouth, Middlesex, and Burlington, cross-county destinations are going to have to be factored in. That said, the program still has PSRC and TMA officials buzzing:

"The aging population is supposed to double in the next 15 years, so the idea is not to replace some of the services that already exist, but to add to it so that it fills a niche that isn't currently being met," said PSRC Executive Director Susan Hoskins last Wednesday afternoon at a forum that brought out seniors and visually impaired residents alike.

There are services, effective ones, Ms. Hoskins said, like Access Link and Mercer County T.R.A.D.E., that provide transportation to Mercer County senior citizens, persons with disabilities, or those who are economically disadvantaged. But volunteer-based services like ITNGreaterMercer are largely viewed by transportation officials as lifting the burden off other such programs, while providing a flexible service.

"Hopefully all of it will add up to more accessibility for everybody," Ms. Hoskins said.

ITN functions on an account base with a participant opening a pre-paid account, almost like a debit. The cost includes a pick-up charge and a per-mile cost with discounts given for scheduling rides in advance or for carpooling. Maintaining an account is $35 per year.

For the volunteer drivers, there is also room for benefit. In Portland, Ore., drivers receive 25 cents per mile, and if the driver chooses, those funds can be used for personal transportation in the future, or passed off to a family or friend who are also ITN customers.

Blind from birth and reliant on guide dogs, Sue Tillet of Moore Street said that the ITN service can function for uses more than just human medical emergencies. Ms. Tillet's first dog suffered from congestive heart failure, and needed a veterinarian's help at short notice:

"Every time she stopped breathing, I thought she was dead and I was freaking out, and it was two o'clock in the morning.

"I thought, 'What would I do if I needed to get her to medical care?'"

TMA's Outreach Program Developer Linda Lieberman said that drivers can be on hand quickly for less-pressing situations as well, including trips to the grocery store and the bank.

"There are lots of great ways to use this," she said.

For more information, visit www.ITNGreaterMercer.org or call (609) 452-1015.

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