By SARA ARTHURS
The founder of a network in which volunteers in private vehicles transport senior citizens and people with disabilities brought her ideas to Findlay on Tuesday, outlining how the model works in larger cities and what it might look like in a rural community like Findlay.
Katherine Freund, president and founder of the transportation nonprofit Independent Transportation Network America (ITNAmerica), spoke at the Senior Center during an “elder mobility” forum co-sponsored by the Hancock County Agency on Aging and United Way.
ITNAmerica uses a computerized system that helps match people who need rides with people who have rides to offer. Volunteers must undergo background checks and provide references. Riders are members of the organization and have accounts where they accumulate transportation credits. Rides are not free, but no money changes hands in the vehicle.
Instead, members maintain accounts where their payments are credited. The account is debited when a ride is given. Participants can pay their credits forward. For example, a middle-aged person who volunteers to drive can use accrued credits when older and in need of a ride. People can also donate credits to low-income riders in what Freund termed “transportation social security.”
ITNAmerica exists in 22 states and has been operating for almost 20 years, but, so far, only in bigger cities. Freund said rural communities would need a different approach since the model that’s been used wouldn’t be cost-effective in a smaller community. She is working to create a new program she calls “ITNEverywhere” and said Findlay might be an ideal place to create a pilot program.
Freund said when she first created ITNAmerica she had to rethink some common assumptions, such as “if you are too old to drive you are too old to pay for yourself.” In fact, driving is a service many seniors are willing to pay for, she said. The average fare for ITN is about $11 to $12 each way which Freund said at first sounded expensive but surveys have found riders are satisfied with the price.
She said another assumption is that seniors would be best served by a bus, but they are used to doing the majority of their traveling by automobile.
“What you want is what you have always done,” she said.
Another assumption is that seniors who are still able to drive are self-sufficient as far as transportation. But many seniors who still have their driver’s licenses may limit themselves, such as not driving at night, or on the interstate, or in the snow, Freund said.
The reasons for trips with ITNAmerica are 41 percent medical and 22 percent consumer with smaller amounts for employment or volunteering, recreation, social and religious activities. Freund said riders can go anywhere they want for any purpose with “no value judgments.” The average age of a rider is 80 and many are women living alone.
Freund said the most common fear of driving someone else is that their insurance rates will rise. ITN lobbied for and successfully got legislation passed saying insurance companies cannot increase a driver’s premium because he or she uses their car to volunteer.
Freund said surveys have been conducted to get a sense of rural communities’ needs and desires. The research has revealed that rural communities have different challenges. Because riders need to go longer distances, trips are more expensive, and yet there are fewer resources, fewer volunteers and fewer people to subsidize the cost, Freund said.
She is currently seeking funding to create the software for ITNEverywhere, which she estimated would cost $3 million. ITNEverywhere couldn’t come to Findlay until after the software is created.
United Way President and CEO John Urbanski said there is definitely local interest. When surveys are conducted of Findlay’s needs as a community, “transportation always rises to the top,” he said.
Freund said Findlay is “an ideal situation” to be a pilot program for ITNEverywhere because it is a county hub but has no public transportation, and she suspects there would be a lot of people willing to volunteer.
Urbanski said local costs to implement ITNEverywhere would probably be in the low six figures over several years. He thinks there are grants available to pay much of this cost.
Urbanski said he was pleased with Tuesday’s turnout which included about 70 people from Hancock and surrounding counties, among them representatives of the Senior Center, the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Findlay, Owens Community College and social service agencies.
He said ITNEverywhere would be “a great opportunity for the community,” not meant to replace existing transportation system such as the Hancock Area Transportation Services, but to offer another option. He has heard interest from not only Hancock but also from Wood and Putnam counties.
“Putnam County has no real transportation,” he said.
Urbanski said now is “the time to get the dialogue going” to see if the local community would support ITNEverywhere.
“The beauty of it is it’s a self-sustaining network that doesn’t require public dollars to maintain,” he said.
Dave Salucci, deputy director at the Hancock Hardin Wyandot Putnam Community Action Commission, which operates Hancock Area Transportation Services, said HATS will be a part of the dialogue and called ITNEverywhere “a wonderful concept.”
HATS offers curb-to-curb service after people call for an appointment. Salucci said it only operates during certain hours Monday through Saturday, and it is first-come, first-served since there are only so many vehicles, “so there’s certainly more demand out there,” he said.
Tuesday’s forum was one of several being held around the state. Carolyn Copus, executive director of the Hancock County Agency on Aging, said the forums are intended for fact-finding and evaluating possibilities. She noted that transportation is a challenge in the community.
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