FLORIDA--Gas Cost Threatens Bus Rides for Needy

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Gas cost threatens bus rides for needy

Poor, disabled may lose transport

By DON RUANE, The News-Press March 18, 2000

Rising gas prices are threatening to cut back special bus rides provided for the poor and disabled across Florida.

Short-range actions to counter the cost crisis include raising the cost per trip for social service agencies until the prices come down. Longer-term answers to the transportation needs of the disadvantaged include raising fees car owners pay when they register or renew their license tags.

Meanwhile, service cutbacks would affect people such as the developmentally disabled who need rides to work training sessions, said Marsha Vollmar, director of developmental services at the Florida Children and Families office in Fort Myers.

Others, such as those on Medicaid who need to get to stores for food and medicine, also will be affected, said Jo Ann Hutchinson, director of the Florida Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged. They could end up in nursing homes if they cant get those things, she said.

The crunch point is trying to provide the service without losing the provider.

We have to make enough to stay in business, said Gary Bryant, director of Good Wheels Inc., the largest provider of such rides in Lee County.

Without help, he estimated hell have to cut nearly 13,000 trips a year.

Thats almost a months work that couldnt be conducted, he said. The company carries people on 162,000 trips a year to and from work, school, appointments and other destinations, Bryant said.

Local transportation coordinators began calling the commission this month asking for help, Hutchinson said. The commission has no emergency funds to help them, she said.

Locally, two options are being explored.

The first increases the typical $16.87 cost per trip by as much as 75 cents. The second is to see whether Good Wheels and other providers can buy fuel through Lee Countys fleet fuel program.

An advisory committee will consider a per trip increase next Friday.

Any per trip increase, which must be approved by the Florida commission, will be passed on to state and other social service agencies that have contracts with the bus service companies. Individuals would not pay the increase.

Individuals still might see a cut in service if the agency they use cannot absorb the higher rate.

Lee County fleet manager Marilyn Rawlings said she would like to open her fuel pumps to the transportation disadvantaged program if possible. Her concerns include taking business away from local gas stations and sales tax issues if any of the providers are for-profit agencies, she said.

Bryant said he also would look at getting contracts from fuel suppliers that would include protection against sudden spikes in the price. The company buys most of its fuel at the pump at current prices, he said.

In Tallahassee, Hutchinson is asking the Legislature to increase the commissions trust fund by $10 million this year.

There hasnt been an increase in the $24 million fund in six years, she said. Meanwhile, the number of one-way rides increased 5 percent last year to 38 million. One million trips were denied for lack of funds, Hutchinson said.

The money could come from the same sources as the money that would be used to widen Interstate 75 in Lee County, Hutchinson said.

Some also could come from changes in the license tag registration fee. One proposal raises the fee from $1.50 to $2.50. Another extends the $1.50 fee to trucks over 5,000 pounds and to trailers and motorcycles.

Theres only so much money, she said.

 Don Ruane can be reached at 335-0225.

Copyright 2000, The News-Press. http://www.news-press.com/news/today/gas000318.html

-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 18, 2000

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