By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Deemed unroadworthy, the city’s senior van, with its door hanging from two hinges instead of three and a lift that has rusted so badly it can no longer transport passengers in wheelchairs, has been out of service for more than a month.
Peg Benson, the van’s driver for the past 17 years, said this hiatus has been hard on those who depended on the van to get to doctor’s appointments or to the grocery store, among other locations.
Many of them just don’t have any other means of affordable, accessible transportation.
“It’s left a lot of people struggling to get to where they need to go,” Benson said.
The 1997 Dodge van was pulled out of service after a March 12 public hearing to discuss the city’s applying for a new van through the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Specialized Transportation Program.
Concern over the van’s condition, along with the safety of its passengers, prompted an Ohio State Highway Patrol inspection just days later, which it didn’t pass.
If approved for the grant, however, the state would fund 80 percent of the cost for a new 12-passenger van with a wheelchair lift and two wheelchair positions, while the city would be responsible for the remaining 20 percent.
A new van costs about $60,000, and the city has already budgeted $23,000 this year for the senior van — $10,000 for operations, including the driver’s salary, and $13,000 for the matching grant funds.
But while Mayor Terry Stocker said he felt the city put together a strong application, submitted to the state in late March, it’s a highly competitive grant — and one the city won’t learn the outcome of until July.
Last year’s request for funding was unsuccessful.
So, at this point, the city is “looking into all avenues that are available” to quickly put a safe senior van back on the road, Stocker said, including the possibility of somehow leasing a vehicle in the interim, or at least until the grant results are announced.
“We will do something. We will have transportation,” Stocker said.
“There may be a little painful period we have to struggle through first. ... The city definitely wants, and has a need for, busing here in the community.”
Like Benson, Stocker said the van’s removal from service has caused problems for its former passengers. Not only did the van pick up and drop off its passengers directly at their homes, but it also required no more than a donation to ride.
When the city obtains a new van, it may need to implement a standardized fare, but Stocker said whatever it’s going to be, it will be affordable.
Shirley Sepesy — the city’s litter control and recycling coordinator who arranges the busing service with the mayor’s secretary, Janet Gentile — added that it’s difficult for many of the van’s passengers, most of whom have limited incomes, to afford other transportation.
Plus, their making it to a bus stop or carrying bags of groceries are often additional challenges.
“They don’t have a vehicle, they can’t drive anymore, their families live out of town,” Sepesy said.
“These are senior citizens. It’s not like they can get up and walk down to the corner and catch the bus.”
Sepesy noted that the recently retired van, which could transport 10 passengers, was “pretty full” on the three or four days it ran each week, usually from 8:45 a.m. to noon.
She said, too, that she’s received a number of phone calls to city hall in the past month, all of them inquiring about the van’s status.
For those reasons, Benson will keep hoping the transportation service resumes soon, and not only because its hiatus has put her out of work as well.
“They should get something for those ladies and gentlemen. I know they’re missing it,” Benson said. “I just pray that they get a new van here.”