Cracking The Transportation Bottleneck
In 2010, the Whitehall Senior Center, an activity and meals hub for seniors in Whitehall, was trying to unload a bus and a van it had been using to transport its patrons and residents of a nearby assisted living home. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) had designated the center that area’s agency to provide state funded public transportation for seniors and people with disabilities. But the center was finding the state’s reporting system and other requirements too cumbersome.
Vikki Correll likens riding a Whitehall Public Transportation bus or van to a “kind of social hour.”
“You come for the company sometimes, especially in the wintertime when you get stuck in your house or apartment,” Correll said.
“We do have a good time on our trips,” said Carol Liebers. “It's like social time for us. It allows us a certain amount of independence.”
At the behest of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, Whitehall Public Transportation now has extended its service to Boulder, a similar sized community 30 miles to the north. The Commission has authorized allocating $15,000 in county funds to help fund the Boulder service in its first year. MDT has said it will contribute $8,000. The service started July 7, with Hippert’s Whitehall colleague Susan Poff as the primary driver and Boulder resident Pat Lewis as a volunteer to fill in as needed.
“Getting around to things such as shopping and medical appointments become very difficult for the aged and disabled,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Bob Mullen. “We need to think about and begin to implement strategies that target the necessary transportation needs of these individuals. An initial expansion in the Boulder area is a start on those strategies. The goal is to expand the transportation services across the county.”
On the first and third Tuesday of every month, Whitehall Public Transportation will pick up Boulder riders so they can shop and run errands locally; on the second and fourth Tuesdays, the bus will drive to Helena for medical appointments, shopping and other services.
“The long term hope is that we'll be providing more services as we find out what the needs are from the residents of Boulder,” Hippert said.
This isn’t the first time Whitehall Public Transportation has tried to serve Boulder. A few years ago, Whitehall Public Transportation scheduled a once-a-month trip from Boulder to Helena, but the service failed to attract enough interest.
To gather more support this time, Hippert and Poff visited the Boulder Basin Senior Center and local businesses every other week beginning in January, until the COVID-19 threat hit; to get the word out and even give sample rides. “We wanted to create an exposure as well as a relationship with Boulder residents,” Hippert said. “And we've had very positive feedback. The needs are there.”
They’ve also met with staff at Boulder Medical Clinic, who have agreed to assist with coordinating patients’ medical appointments in Helena. Bruce Binkowski, Jefferson County’s events coordinator, has promoted the nonprofit’s services on Facebook and county radio stations.
Hippert hopes to eventually expand service in Jefferson County to Basin and elsewhere. In anticipation of further growth, Whitehall Public Transportation, likely by July 1, 2021, will be spun out of Liberty Place and more closely tied with Jefferson County, Hippert said in an email. While details remain to be worked out, possible outcomes include Whitehall Public Transportation becoming either a standalone nonprofit under contract to the county or a County Transit Agency, she said.
So far, the service has proven transformative for rural seniors who otherwise would lose access to mobility, needed services and each other’s company, she said.
“I have learned that there are a lot of people that are elderly or disabled living independently at their homes, and without our services ... they would not be able to get out and do anything,” she said. “We've opened the doors for so many.”
Montana is the oldest state west of the Mississippi, and demographic projections show the state growing collectively older as more Montanans enter their senior years. The economic, cultural, and personal impacts of that trend present the state and its residents with new challenges and, with those challenges, opportunities.
Graying Pains is a series of weekly stories and broadcasts exploring those challenges and opportunities in communities statewide. By investigating how other communities have responded to the issues raised by aging, Graying Pains hopes to point the way toward policies and innovations that can help Montana, and Montanans, improve with age.
The series is produced by the Montana Fourth Estate Project, a collaboration among 13 Montana newsrooms and the University of Montana School of Journalism coordinated by Montana Free Press under the auspices of the Montana Newspaper Association and the Solutions Journalism Network. See montanafourthestate.org for the collected Graying Pains stories and more information.