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No ride

After spending millions on a facility, SLORTA plans to cut a program for the elderly that fell $10,000 short

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- OH WELL :  Regional Transportation Authority Marketing Director Aimee Wyatt tried to explain a new bus route to a group of elderly Los Osos residents. Also pictured are RTA Service Director Jason Gillespie (center) and RTA head Ed King. -  - PHOTO BY ROBERT A. MCDONALD
  • PHOTO BY ROBERT A. McDONALD
  • OH WELL : Regional Transportation Authority Marketing Director Aimee Wyatt tried to explain a new bus route to a group of elderly Los Osos residents. Also pictured are RTA Service Director Jason Gillespie (center) and RTA head Ed King.

Dumb bastards,” the old man said as he sat down.

The man, tall but bent low by his years, rarely has the strength to leave his house. He hadn’t wanted to leave home that June 1 afternoon, but he felt he had to. He had something to say and he wanted someone to listen.

As he shuffled across the long floor of the community center, three dozen elderly Los Osos residents sat down at six tables that wouldn’t look out of place in an elementary school cafeteria. Some came with walkers or canes. One brought an oxygen tank. Though none of them lived more than a few miles from the center, many looked like they’d come a long way.

It was obvious these old people were mad. Very mad.

At the head of the tables stood the object of their wrath: Ed King, head of the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA). With a budget of around $7 million a year, King runs the county’s public transportation service. He was there to tell the elderly audience that he intended to eliminate the South Bay Dial-A-Ride, a service that helps the elderly support themselves by giving them rides.

“There just isn’t enough support to continue the service,” King said.

He explained the area’s Dial-A-Ride service needed to recoup 10 percent of its costs through fares to earn state support, and since the program only recovered 4.95 percent of costs from riders, it would have to go.

“How far did we fall short?” asked one woman.

Around $10,000, King said.

This was met with annoyed grumblings from the audience.

King and his two assistants were quick to explain the RTA was creating a new bus route that would substitute for the lost program, which presently offers door-to-door service for $1.10 per trip.

“You don’t understand,” said Teresa Ueltschi. “There aren’t any sidewalks in Los Osos, and everything is too spread out for the elderly to walk.”

Another attendee said the stops for the new route were on the opposite side of Los Osos Valley Road from the mobile home parks where many older residents live. Los Osos Valley Road, one of the busiest and fastest thoroughfares in the area, is a four-lane road with few crosswalks.

“Don’t you cross the road now?” RTA Marketing Director Aimee Wyatt asked sweetly to the listeners. Her comment was met with three dozen cold stares.

A New Times reporter managed to cross the road only by running to avoid the late-afternoon traffic.

“That kind of does it,” John Strimple, an 88-year-old retiree from the phone company, told New Times. “We were managing quite well, but without the [Dial-A-Ride] program, it kind of gives us a push into a nursing home.”

Strimple, blind for seven years, said the Dial-A-Ride is a lifeline for him and his wife Elsie. They use it to go to the store and to visit the outside world, they say. Dial-A-Ride has bridged the gap between their giving up their car and entering a nursing home.

“I don’t think I can make it across that road,” Strimple said.

The end of the program signals a similar transition for many of Los Osos’s elderly residents. Many of those listening to King said their world will shrink without Dial-A-Ride.

King told them there would be other alternative programs—the Runabout Paratransit disability services for the disabled and the new bus line—to make up for Dial-A-Ride’s demise. Unfortunately, many people at the meeting said they wouldn’t qualify for that program or couldn’t afford its higher costs. Unlike Dial-a-Ride, it would only operate twice a week.

“Is this program being cut because you have to pay for your building?” asked another resident, Mary Wooten.

She asked whether the RTA had received hundreds of thousands from the state through Proposition 1B and, if so, couldn’t some of that money be used to save Dial-A-Ride?

King looked particularly irritated at this comment. Proposition 1B was a $2 billion bond proposition passed in 2006 and was billed as a way to shore up the state’s flagging public transportation systems.

“Money from Proposition 1B can only be used for capital improvement, not to support programs,” King said. “[The elimination of Dial-A-Ride] has nothing to do with the building.”

The RTA has been struggling to make payments on a $4.7 million loan it took out in March 2008 to pay for building a state-of-the-art headquarters at 179 Cross St. in San Luis Obispo. Though the authority built the building, it doesn’t own it. The RTA still pays rent to the landowner.

Even after using Proposition 1B money for the facility, the RTA has been raising fares to help balance the books and to pay off the facility. The RTA had asked the county Board of Supervisors for money to help with the loan but is now in the process of refinancing its debt, which should stabilize its finances for at least this fiscal year.

Still, programs are being eliminated. Earlier this year, the Cambria Trolley was axed, and now the South Bay Dial-A-Ride is on the chopping block.

Many of the meeting’s attendees complained that the plight of the elderly in Los Osos was being ignored.

“Why isn’t [county supervisor] Bruce Gibson here?” Ueltschi asked.

Wyatt said Gibson was in Sacramento and his office didn’t send anyone.

King said though the program was set to end Aug. 6, final approval for Dial-A-Ride’s conclusion will have to be approved by the RTA board on July 13 at the county government center.

“You should all come to the meeting and voice your concern to the board,” King said.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m.

“None of us can be there,” said another resident. “Dial-A-Ride doesn’t run that early. None of us will be able to get to the meeting.”

The old man who hadn’t said much since the beginning of the meeting shook his head at this.

“Dumb bastards,” he murmured. 

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

 

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