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Targeted service could be cheaper, more expansive, steering committee says

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF WILSONVILLE - A steering committee has been assessing ways to improve South Metro Area Regional Transit's (SMART) Dial-a-Ride program and presented findings to the Wilsonville City Council recently.

Wilsonville resident Edna Buddrius, 86, paid about $50 a month to use South Metro Area Regional Transit's (SMART) Dial-a-Ride service — which transports mainly seniors and people with disabilities to specific destinations — to attend cardiac rehabilitation appointments at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center in Tualatin for five years.

After no longer needing the rehab, Buddrius also stopped using the transit service. But she liked the service so much, she is considering using it to go on shorter trips to the Wilsonville Community Center and other places around town.

"I like the service. I'm missing it. I enjoyed it. All the drivers were super. They were all polite and friendly. I got to meet different people around the city. I enjoyed riding it instead of fighting traffic," Buddruis said.

The Dial-a-Ride program has separate services for American Disabilities Act (ADA) riders, seniors and the general public. It conducted 17,300 rides and drivers traveled over 100,000 miles to destinations in the 2018-19 fiscal year. And some of the programs are booked days in advance due to popularity.

Despite these facts, the City of Wilsonville's Dial-A-Ride Steering Committee, which is composed of community members, thinks the program has ample room for improvement. And for the last year, they have discussed the program, conducted a survey and identified a list of solutions.

Last week, the committee presented the Wilsonville City Council with a framework for how the program could be improved. The City will decide at a later date whether to adopt the framework and what steps to take moving forward.

One sticking point is cost. While the program is free across town, it costs about $6 per ride to go places that are out of town. About 20% of survey respondents use the Dial-A-Ride program to get to medical appointments, and the committee suggested making such use of the ride free or at a reduced cost.

"You're talking about people who are disabled and on Social Security, who are elderly and they only have so much money left. They might have a house and a mortgage, but they (also) have a budget," said committee member Kate Johnson.

Buddrius, for her part, also said it would be nice if the program was less expensive.

SMART Director Dwight Brashear has stated many times his goal of making all transit services free in town. However, he said it's up to the City Council to decide if it would like to subsidize the program enough so that it's free of charge no matter the destination.

"It comes down to what we have as a City to stomach for subsidizing it to what point," Brashear said. "It's not a whole lot of money, but I certainly understand if you're on fixed or limited income and watching your dollars. It could be a barrier."

Brashear also said SMART is considering making the service more of a carpool rather than drivers picking up and dropping off users one by one. Brashear said this idea would reduce costs.

"There's a finite amount of money in anything you do. Our goal is to do as much as we can with the money we have. More trips with the same amount of money is a win-win," he said.

The committee also advised the council to increase the availability of the service. Specifically, there is interest in a weekend service that covers Charbonneau. Johnson also would like to see the program offer more rides to places outside of Wilsonville. Currently, out-of-town service is restricted only to medical appointments and is only available for seniors and ADA users.

"My mom likes to go to Marquis in Tualatin to swim; she's 83. She gets on a route to connect to Tualatin buses. She said she would like to go to the symphony (in Portland) once in awhile with friends," Johnson said.

Another committee recommendation is to make the application process easier and more accessible. Johnson said she had to fill out her parents' application to the program because it was so extensive. SMART Transit Manager Eric Loomis suggested some improvements, including allowing applications to be submitted via fax and email instead of just by mail as well as simplifying the forms.

Though the committee is striving to improve the program, Loomis said the City's goal is for the use of service to decrease because the regular transit service in town is more efficient to run. The City currently conducts educational programs with Ride Connection partially aimed at helping people who use Dial-A-Ride switch to the regular transit service. Each Dial-a-Ride trip costs the City $55.31 and much of that is funded through the payroll tax that funds transit.

"If the community wants to expand programs, we will. We just want to do it in the most efficient manner we can," Loomis said.

He added: "A big part of it is education, marketing and our travel trainer (education program). Those people who do qualify for Dial-a-Ride service, they may be able to take the fixed route but don't have the skills to take it."

Despite believing that some aspects of the program could be improved, Johnson appreciates that Wilsonville's transit department offers Dial-A-Ride.

"It's awesome that they drive up to your door. It's in high demand. It's amazing, and the drivers are awesome and friendly. They will go so far as to get out of the vehicle and help the individual board the bus. They're typically always on time," she said. "The SMART vehicles are clean. They provide a service. They get you from point A to point B; they're practical and somewhat affordable."

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