Tri-county coun­cil works to ad­dress trans­porta­tion needs

Area prob­lem calls for re­gional so­lu­tion

Maryland Independent - - News - By DANDAN ZOU dzou@somd­ Twit­ter: @Dan­danEn­tNews

Meet­ing lo­cal trans­porta­tion needs has long been a chal­lenge for ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties like the South­ern Mary­land.

With the help of part­ners from all three coun­ties, the Tri-County Coun­cil for South­ern Mary­land is work­ing to de­velop a re­gional so­lu­tion to ad­dress lo­cal trans­porta­tion needs.

The goal is of­fer more op­tions for the vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion who lack means to ac­cess health care and em­ploy­ment, said Nicky Pires, re­gional tran­sit co­or­di­na­tor of the coun­cil. Se­niors, vet­er­ans and peo­ple with low in­come in the re­gion are the pri­mary au­di­ence for the ini­tia­tive.

Health ad­vo­cates say the need for ac­cess to care is ever grow­ing as health costs rise and the pop­u­la­tion ages, an is­sue only com­pounded with the on­go­ing opi­oid cri­sis.

“Trans­porta­tion is an over­ar­ch­ing need that im­pacts a lot of part­ners and com­mu­nity mem­bers,” said Jenna Mul­liken, the St. Mary’s County Health De­part­ment’s lo­cal health improvement co­or­di­na­tor, who pro­vides sup­port for the St. Mary’s Healthy Part­ner­ship’s ac­tion teams.

When­ever fo­cus groups or sur­veys are be­ing done, Mul­liken said, the trans­porta­tion prob­lem “is al­ways some­thing that’s brought up.”

Be­cause the is­sue is so large and de­pen­dent on built-in en­vi­ron­ments, a col­lab­o­ra­tion built upon re­gional part­ner­ship is nec­es­sary, she said.

As a quasi-gov­ern­men­tal re­gional plan­ning agency based in Hugh­esville, the tri-county coun­cil re­ceived a ru­ral Mary­land pros­per­ity in­vest­ment fund of $50,000 from the Ru­ral Mary­land Coun­cil. The grant is used to fund a de­sign think­ing process to come up with a re­gional so­lu­tion to meet the trans­porta­tion needs in the tri-county area.

A sec­ond grant of $56,000 is ex­pected to come around Septem­ber and it will be used to launch a pilot pro­gram in the spring, ac­cord­ing to Pires.

Af­ter months of dis­cus­sions, the part­ner­ship has worked out the con­cept of a pilot pro­gram that aims to op­ti­mize re­sources to in­crease utiliza­tion of ex­ist­ing ser­vices.

Pires said lo­cal non­profit agen­cies such as the Cen­ter for Life En­rich­ment, The Arc South­ern Mary­land and Bay Com­mu­nity Sup­port Ser­vices each of­fer their own trans­porta­tion ser vices.

With the de­sire to pro­vide co­or­di­nated, door-to-door ser­vice, Pires said the pilot project hopes to build a web-based sys­tem that can be shared among the three or­ga­ni­za­tions men­tioned above and non-profit Life­styles of Mary­land.

Col­lec­tively the four non­profit groups have be­tween 50 and 60 ve­hi­cles, Pires said. But they are not be­ing used to their full ca­pac­ity.

Pires said the goal is to no longer see an empty van pick­ing up one per­son but to have the same van pick­ing up young peo­ple, se­niors, vet­er­ans and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

Through pro­vid­ing ride-shar­ing soft­ware li­censes, au­to­matic ve­hi­cle lo­ca­tor tablets and vol­un­teer in­sur­ances to ser­vice providers, the project hopes to break down the bar­ri­ers and make it eas­ier for lo­cal providers to co­or­di­nate ser­vices and in­crease ef­fi­ciency.

For ex­am­ple, the plat­form could con­sol­i­date some routes which could free up re­sources and lead to more routes in less reached ar­eas such as Ridge or Piney Point, Pires said.

With new soft­ware and tech­nol­ogy, the en­vi­sioned plat­form would not only make it eas­ier for providers to com­mu­ni­cate with each other, but also more con­ve­nient for rid­ers to see the sta­tus of their buses on their smart­phones.

Pires said the four part­ners in­volved in the pilot project are look­ing into quotes for in­sur­ances now and will move on to soft­ware later. They are also re­cruit­ing vol­un­teer driv­ers.

Pires en­cour­ages in­ter­ested per­sons to con­tact Life­styles of Mary­land at 301-609-9900, or to call her di­rectly at 301-274-1922, ext. *825.

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