MI: COASTing to Freedom in Traverse City

by Marta Hepler Drahos; Source: McClatchy

Christine Gran had to take two city buses, then walk the final block and a half to her volunteer job, paying fare from her meager Social Security income.

Now the Traverse City senior has a better option: Commission on Aging Senior Transit or "COAST." The service provided in partnership with Bay Area Transportation Authority offers 60-plus Grand Traverse County residents reserved, door-to-door transportation two days a week. And for now, it's free.

"This is something the seniors have been asking for a long time," said Cynthia Kienlen, director of Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging, which launched the 90-day pilot project in November.

The COAST bus operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and provides dedicated transit service for seniors anywhere in Grand Traverse County. It's a more senior-minded alternative to BATA's City Loop, which offers fixed-route bus service, or City Link, traditional dial-a-ride service available only in Traverse City and the immediate surrounding area, said Eric Lingaur, BATA communications and development director.

"They don't have to transfer buses, navigate our systems. We're trying to make it as seamless as possible," he said.

In its first six days of service, the propane-fueled bus covered 367 miles in 85 trips, Lingaur said.

"The majority were for personal and medical needs," he said, adding that rides can be reserved from two weeks to 24 hours -- and sometimes less -- in advance. "We're averaging 14 trips a day, which is pretty good."

Gran, 72, uses the bus to get to her volunteer job at a governmental center and eventually hopes to take it to exercise and other appointments at Munson Medical Center.

"The COAST is an absolute blessing," she said. "It saved me financially, plus it's such a joy to have a conversation on the bus with someone who is my own age."

The bus seats 19 and has room for four wheelchairs. Passengers can even bring along a caregiver or family member, Kienlen said.

"The bus driver helps them in and out of the bus. Going forward we're looking for COAST ambassadors to help them a little more on the bus," she said.

Lucy Hofmann took city buses three to five times a week until a fall made it harder for her to walk to or wait at stops. Now she uses COAST for regular trips to the grocery, health food store, bank and the post office.

"Transportation is such a big part of aging at home," said Hofmann, 88. "It gives you freedom and independence. As long as you can do things for yourself, you're OK."

The pilot project ends Feb. 13, after which Kienlen plans to go back to the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners to request a continuation of services.

"The hope is for it to run five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.," Kienlen said. "We're taking it one step at a time. Maybe we'd do it in increments."

Current COA members are already approved to ride COAST. Other county residents 60 and older can become COA members by verifying their age and residence with COA at 231-922-4688. Call COAST at BATA at 231-941-2324.

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