Oct. 13—LOWVILLE — Despite continued efforts to grow the Lewis County Public Transportation system, the lack of "on-demand" services can be the biggest obstacle for people without vehicles to find jobs or even rides home from the hospital.
Every four years, the Lewis County Transportation Task Force updates the Coordinated Human Services Transportation Plan to find new roads through the myriad challenges of providing much-needed transportation services in rural areas.
"The gist of it is (to make sure) that we aren't having duplicate efforts, they're not overlapping. It's coordinating efforts," Planning Department Director Casandra M. Buell said. "Through that process we do an analysis of all of the transportation services that are available in the county, what agencies are in need of, what their clients are in need of, and what our public is in need of, and we come up with a set of goals and an action plan."
Although the task force did not find any significant overlaps in the process that was completed last month, gaps were found in transit for employment, for health care and treatments for people with and without Medicaid and access to "critical needs" transportation.
"Public Transportation-wise we look to fill those gaps in any way that we can, but there are other services that are provided by places, like Lewis County Opportunities, that other agencies may not know about," she said.
For people without private transportation around the county, being able to get to where they need to go outside of normal public transportation hours, or in places that public transportation does not service, is a challenge.
According to information in the task force's revised plan, 459 households in the county, which is about 5% of the 10,247 housing units that are occupied, do not have access to a vehicle regardless of how many working-age adults live in that household. About 28% have access to one vehicle.
Some people have access to a vehicle that is not working and do not have the means to get the vehicle back on the road.
Lewis County Opportunities has a program through which they help people repair their vehicles so they can get to work or find jobs.
Communication between organizations and transportation service providers is a key component to the new coordination plan.
Medical-related transportation services for people who have Medicaid insurance are provided centrally through Medical Answering Services LLC.
Although that centralization eliminated the repetition of services, it has also created challenges.
"Since the establishment of the universal medical transportation system, managed by the MAS, it has been hard for our human service agencies to find a voice for their clients," the report reads. "There needs to be increased diligent communication and program education ... to alleviate client frustrations."
This is where the gap relating to non-emergency critical need transportation enters the picture in a county where ambulance service is the only option.
The task force found that there are times the MAS system has to call a taxi from Watertown to bring someone home from a medical treatment or appointment in Lowville. Otherwise, the person may have to wait an entire day or have their release delayed until transportation can be found.
The same issue exists for people whose work schedules don't correspond with public transportation availability or live too far from the bus routes to make them a realistic option on a regular basis.
"People need an 'on-demand' transit option," Mrs. Buell said. "We've looked at the idea of possibly partnering with an entity like Lyft or Uber to provide those rides through Public Transportation or through contracts with some agencies just to get some access for people with critical needs."
It may be a "tough nut to crack," because there aren't many drivers involved with those companies in Lewis County at this time, she said, but if the need is there, it's a possibility.
Public Transportation is also in the process of launching a van pool service that was built of out the task force's previous findings and are looking into providing more routes from "rural communities to employment opportunity areas that accommodate regular workday and shift schedules."
The task force also recommended developing an "all-in-one" transit app for the county to provide a clearing house for transit information.
Groups that participated in the process include the county's Social Services, Public Health, Community Services and Probation Departments; Lewis County Health System; Transitional Living Services; Credo Community Center; The Work Place; The ARC; Northern Regional Center for Independent Living; Mountain View Prevention Services; Literacy of Northern New York; Lewis County Opportunities; Lewis County Head Start; Brookside Senior Living; and Volunteer Transportation Center Inc.
Mrs. Buell said the process is required by state and federal grant regulations for transportation funds and for the agencies that use the transportation as part of their services.