Covid-related grants to fund transportation improvements in rural areas
Money will be used to improve accessibility of public and community transportation systems in New Hampshire
Alisa Druzba works in rural health, but over the past few years she noticed another issue permeating her work.
“Transportation comes up in every conversation,” said Druzba, director of the NH Office of Rural Health and Primary Care, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
There’s the obvious issue of patients without transportation being able to get to appointments. But Druzba noticed that the state’s lack of public transit came up in hiring as well, whether the discussion focused on doctors or less skilled workers like nursing assistants. She also knew that transportation, or lack thereof, impacted people’s access to healthy foods, community resources and other social determinants of health.
Last year, the state received more than $24 million in Covid-related grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, focused on addressing pandemic-related health inequities. About $3 million was earmarked for rural transportation projects. Druzba realized that, leveraged with existing state funding, the grant could make a massive difference in the accessibility of community transportation in New Hampshire.
“I thought, ‘Oh, here we go. Here’s my opportunity to do a project based on equity in transportation,’” Druzba said.
The majority of the funds will be used to create full-time mobility management positions at the state level and in each of the state’s nine Regional Coordinating Councils (RCCs), which oversee community transportation at the local level.
Transportation services are often siloed, said Druzba, because different programs and agencies fund them. A bus tasked with providing rides to the elderly often can’t transport a disabled young adult, for example, even if they’re going to the same place.
Mobility managers are professionals tasked with overseeing the coordination of transportation services and building relationships between providers, said Judy L. Shanley, Easterseals director working with the National Center for Mobility Management. They help people understand which services they’re eligible for, and help agencies coordinate their services.
“It’s about building a continuum of accessible and reliable transportation,” said Shanley.
New Hampshire has already taken steps to streamline transportation services. In 2007, the legislature created the State Coordinating Council for Community Transportation (SCC) to increase collaboration by bringing many stakeholders to the table. In addition to other projects, the SCC is currently working on a web directory of transportation resources available in the state. Despite that, there’s more work to be done, said Druzba.
“People are making all these investments in infrastructure, but not coordinating,” she said. “They are focused on providing a service to people as soon as they can.”
A knowledgeable mobility manager helps communities maximize access to existing transposition services, said Amy Conrick, director of the National Center for Mobility Management. Once that happens, the community can address any gaps in services with new programming.
That’s exactly what Fred Roberge, chair of the SCC, would like to see happen in New Hampshire.
“It’s easy to say we need more money, and in fact we do, but there’s work that can be done with the resources that we have,” he said.
Before the CDC funding, the state Department of Transportation had funded part-time mobility management positions at the regional and state levels. Once the federal funds were secured, the grant money was used to fund full-time jobs in the state’s five rural regions. That allowed DOT funding to be redistributed to fund full-time positions in the areas that are not rural and therefore couldn’t use grant funding.
“We’re able to partner together to maximize the use of the limited dollars that we have to have the biggest impact and more benefits to the transportation users,” said Shelley Winters, administrator of the DOT’s Bureau of Rail and Transit.
Steve Workman is on the leadership team at the SCC and is the director of Transport New Hampshire, an organization that advocates for transportation systems within the state. He said that braiding the two sources of funding to ensure that all regions of New Hampshire have a mobility manager will strengthen transportation throughout the state. It will help address the immediate needs of the state’s most vulnerable residents, while also building a sustainable transportation system that everyone can utilize.
“This is how we bring transportation providers of every shape and form together so we can create a network of transportation services that can be made available first to the people most in need,” he said. “At the same time that’s happening, you’re building a vibrant system that can adapt to those folks who have (a) choice.”
Lack of resources
People in urban areas live in a transit-rich environment, with access to buses, subways, taxis, ride-shares and more, says Conrick. By comparison, people in rural regions are in transportation deserts, affecting their quality of life.
“People in rural areas need to get to health care, jobs and the grocery store as much as people in urban areas,” she said.
Need-specific programs, like medical rides to dialysis or transport for the elderly, meet some of the need, she said, but a more robust public transportation system empowers people to prioritize what is most important to them — like getting to the bank or post office — without placing limitations on the services.
“It gives people choice,” Conrick said. “Each individual knows what’s most important in their own lives: the destinations they need to go to and the tasks they need to accomplish.”
More than 5 percent of households in New Hampshire have no vehicle, according to state data spanning 2015 to 2019. The rate is highest in Coos County, where 8.8 percent of households have no vehicle, despite living in one of the state’s most rural areas.
Lack of transit is an issue that affects all populations, from kids wanting to participate in after-school activities to people who have medical conditions that prevent them from driving. And yet the American ideal of the individual automobile taints the perception of public transit, said Roberge.
“In many communities, transportation is seen as something for welfare recipients rather than community infrastructure,” he said.
Workman would like to see that change. Car dependency is problematic, he said, whether or not someone has the means to maintain and operate a vehicle. He would like to see the state with a comprehensive transportation system that allows people to live rural without owning a vehicle if they choose not to.
Lately, he’s seen more individuals and agencies focused on creating a sustainable transportation system in the state. The DOT has been willing to take a bottom-up approach, listening to stakeholders and community members and directing funds where they are most needed, he said. The grant funding, along with other collaborations, has the potential to change how New Hampshire builds a comprehensive transportation system. That will take time, and there will be mistakes along the way, Workman said, but he’s eager to see the payoff.
“It’s incredibly exciting to think we’ll have these folks on the ground whose sole focus is building out [the transportation system’s] capacity,” he said.
In addition to funding regional mobility manager positions, the CDC grant provides $390,000 to five rural regions for transportation projects.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to test-drive some stuff,” said Ellen Avery, outgoing mobility manager with the Monadnock Region Coordinating Council for Community Transportation.
The first thing that the Sullivan County Transportation Program did with those funds was to reinstate a program that offers Medicaid-eligible individuals free bus passes. About 60 people use that program, and its funding had been depleted.
“We wanted to make sure they still had that available, because they’re a vulnerable population,” said Teri Palmer, transit director with the Sullivan County Transportation Program.
The program is still working to decide what they’ll spend the remaining funds on. They’re considering a program that would cover taxi fare to complement routine bus service between the towns of Charlestown, Newport and Claremont, which about 100 riders use each day. A voucher program could allow people to get a ride from their home to the bus stop, or back from work after the buses stop running.
Separate to the grant funding, the Sullivan County Transportation Program is trying to work with employers like Whelen Engineering Company in Charlestown, Ruger Firearms in Newport and Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont to create transportation benefits, like bus passes for employees.
Another key area of focus is making sure that people relying on community transit can get to local food pantries. Food insecurity is also a focus for the Southwest Region Planning Commission, which serves 34 communities in Cheshire, Hillsborough and Sullivan counties. They’re working with the Monadnock Children’s Food Access Alliance to expand the service of a shopping shuttle that helps people of all ages get to grocery stores and food pantries.
In addition, the commission wants to enhance youth transportation options. They’re working with the Keene Housing Kids Collaborative, which has been trying to start a youth transportation program in the area. The details are still being explored, but at a recent meeting the collaborative representatives talked with Monadnock Peer Support, which offers rides to people affected by mental illness, about using their van when it would otherwise be idle.
“That’s what’s really cool: it’s stimulating great conversations across agencies,” said Terry Johnson, senior project manager with the Southwest Region Planning Commutations. “Let’s find a way to utilize underutilized vehicles.”
While the regional coordinating councils are excited about the funds, they’re also acutely aware that this is one-time funding, said Avery. Druzba hopes that the RCCs can use the funds to demonstrate a need or proof of concept, but the limited funding has led to some trepidation around instating new programming.
“We have to make sure they’re sustainable,” said Palmer. “We don’t want to start a new route and find in two years that we can’t afford it.”
Palmer has attended RCC meetings in the North Country and Monadnock regions, hoping to learn from and work with other RCCs. Community involvement, especially from the users of community transport, will also be instrumental in developing programs with the most impact, she said.
“I’m open to suggestions,” Palmer said. “It’s a lot of money and a short time period to make it work.”
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