Transportation program for Valley seniors in the works

The program would be self-sustaining cooperative effort designed to give seniors who can’t drive, or who prefer not to, greater flexibility and choice in getting where they need to go while cutting their costs

By John Tredrea
   A program that would provide door-to-door transportation assistance to seniors is slated to be under way late this summer.
   Members of the Hopewell Valley Senior Advisory Board (SAB) learned of the new program, called the Independent Transportation Network (ITN), at a recent SAB meeting at the Hopewell Township Branch, Mercer Library. On hand for that gathering were Samirah Abdul-Fattah of the ITN of Greater Mercer and Sandra Brillhart, executive director of the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit under whose auspices the ITN would operate.
   The program would be self-sustaining cooperative effort designed to give seniors who can’t drive, or who prefer not to, greater flexibility and choice in getting where they need to go while cutting their costs.
   "Our mission is to provide dignified transportation to seniors, age 65 or over, and the visually impaired (of any age)," Ms. Abdul Fattah said.
   "Volunteer drivers are the heart and soul of the ITN model," she added. "They transport seniors and the visually impaired to doctor appointments, grocery stores, banks, beauty salons and the malls. Some volunteers drive only once a month, others much more often. One of the immediate benefits is the experience of connecting with older adults, which volunteers have described as very rewarding. It gives older adults an alternative to driving themselves, she said."
   An ITN program is running successfully in Portland, Maine, Ms. Brillhart said. She said that program provided 2,000 rides in 2006.
   "The average cost to the user was $8 a ride," she said. "The actual expense of the ride was twice that."
   In the Portland program, volunteer drivers are given a mileage credit of 25 cents per mile, which they can use themselves or give to other ITN users.
   The program in Mercer is planned to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To join the program, a senior or visually impaired resident would open an ITN account.
   "You can open an account for an annual fee of $35 and a prepaid startup amount based on estimated usage," Ms. Abdul-Fattah said. "We can help you estimate your monthly trips and their costs. Your cost will include a pickup charge and per-mile cost. Discounts will be given for scheduling rides in advance and sharing rides with others."
   Drivers, who would be screened before being put on duty, would provide customer assistance such as carrying packages. The current thinking, Ms. Brillhart said, is that the program would initially cover a 15-mile radius from Trenton. She added that the program could serve residents not in Mercer proper but close to it. She said many adults will outlive their decision to stop driving by seven to 10 years, driving the need for programs like the ITN.
   SAB Vice Chairman Bill Farmer and SAB board members reacted positively to the program during the meeting at the library. Mr. Farmer said the decision to stop driving can be a difficult one, because seniors can have problems getting everywhere they need to go once they relinquish the independence that driving on one’s own provides.
   "What’s impressive is that people can volunteer and become involved in their communities," SAB Chairman Larry Mansier said.
   Attending the meeting was county Freeholder Liz Muoio, a Pennington resident and former Pennington councilwoman. She said the freeholder board and County Executive Brian Hughes "are behind the ITN program, because it fills in gaps TRADE (Transportation Resources to Aid the Disadvantaged and Elderly, a county program) can’t fill." Also supporting the program was Hopewell Township Mayor Vanessa Sandom, who attended the meeting at the library.
   Ms. Brillhart said the ITN can offer gift certificates and include participation of merchants and medical service providers, who can give discounts to ITN users.
   For more information, log onto the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association’s Web site at or call Ms. Abdul Tattah at 542-1015 or Ms. Brillhart at 452-1491.