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Shared Ride program change in Westmoreland upsets senior citizens

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By Braden Ashe
Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 1:51 a.m.

It's been a rocky road since the Westmoreland County Transit Authority absorbed the Senior Shared Ride Program in July, and senior citizens say its congested operating system is leaving them by the wayside.

The PennDOT program was put in place to provide subsidized, low-fare taxi rides to senior citizens willing to share a cab.

By several accounts, the service ran smoothly when riders dealt directly with the contracted taxi companies.

But since the program was consolidated under the transit authority on July 1, seniors from Vandergrift to New Kensington are struggling to reach the authority's backed-logged Greensburg office.

Numerous calls to transit authority officials for comment on Thursday went unanswered.

With regular fare rates and Shared Ride operators out of reach, some seniors are left stranded. Some say they have missed critical hospital visits.

Chris Schubertof Lower Burrell said her mother-in-law, 91, relied heavily on the Shared Ride program when she scheduled with Byers Taxi Service in Vandergrift. Since July, she said, attempts to reach the transit authority office have been rarely successful.

On most tries, the phone goes unanswered for 45 minutes to an hour before the caller gives up, she said.

According to Schubert, her mother-in-law's inability to leave her New Kensington apartment has impacted her health.

“She's the type of person who won't let anyone know when she needs a ride,” she said. “She hasn't been to the doctor's in weeks because she can't get there.”

Her mother-in-law was placed in intensive care twice last year — once after contracting pneumonia and again when she broke a vertebrae in her neck. Between those incidents, her age and diabetes, the New Kensington woman is prescribed 14 types of medication.

“She doesn't know how to take them,” Schubert said. “That's why it's so important that her intake is monitored. It's literally life-threatening that she can't make it to the hospital.”

It's not the only case in which someone claims the new system's prevented Westmoreland County residents from seeking treatment.

Byers Taxi Service owner Julia Martin said a mix-up in the first week of consolidation cost one Vandergrift resident a chemotherapy treatment.

During the first days centralization, the transit authority computer system crashed.

Authority officials deferred customer communication during that time to the six cab companies in Westmoreland County. Those companies sent the schedules to the Greensburg office, which would distribute them back to the cab services.

Somewhere in the process, the woman's taxi appointment fell through the cracks.

“We were basically sending out the schedules, just to get them back,” Martin said. “A woman lost a cancer treatment because of the confusion.”

Prior to the scheduling centralization, Westmoreland was the only county in the state that didn't use a transit authority to coordinate its Shared Ride program.

Martin, a third-generation owner of the family business, said the centralization, although “ineffective,” reduces the need for some cab company dispatchers.

She said it will most likely lead to layoffs within her company and others in the county.

The Shared Ride program will provide an estimated 165,000 trips for seniors in Westmoreland County this year, the authority stated previously.

Seniors who participate pay $2 for a ride that is fewer than five miles. Fares between five and 10 miles increase to $3.25, and the maximum fare is $9.60 for trips up to 60 miles.

Martin said the countywide, fixed-fare structure will benefit some Westmoreland County residents. Byers Taxi Services patrons are not among them.

Having not requested a rate increase from the Public Utility Commission since the 1990s, Martin's fares were less than those offered by the county. Now, all cab companies charge the same fare.

“One thing about all of this is that it shows you were appreciated before,” she said. “Some elderly people approach me and ask me why I ‘sold the company.' They don't believe it's the same people.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or The Trib's Rich Cholodofsky contributed to this report.

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