Driver Carrie Jones welcomes riders aboard a Dade Transit van.
"She's at Erlanger, she's out front, in her nightgown...and she needs a way home."
Dade Transit employee Rhonda Crisp stood at the office door with the phone in her hands, alerting director Annette Cash of the day's latest crisis: Transit riders are supposed to book in advance, but the Dade resident referenced above had been rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, had now been discharged, and was standing on the pavement in her shimmytail in need of a lift right now. One of the van drivers was on hold waiting for the OK to break from schedule and go to the rescue.
Ms. Cash didn't bat an eyelash. "She'll have to cut through there at St. Elmo and go get her and bring her back," she said. "Tell her to get Hank first."
Welcome to business as usual at Dade Transit, a federally-sourced program with a downhome touch. "You'd be surprised what we do," said Ms. Cash.
Indeed, The Planet was surprised at just about everything Dade Transit did, having until quite recently been aware of it--as are no doubt many residents of this rural corner of the world--only insofar as it served the county senior center.
In fact, driving seniors around was the way the van service in Dade started, explains Ms. Cash (right). When she hired on 18 years ago, there was only one van and she used it to chauffeur the seniors who attended day activities at the center. "I was responsible for picking each and every one of them up," she said. At the end of the day, she'd take them back home. In between, she took them to pay their bills, pick up their medications and hit the grocery store once a week.
Those services are still there, and Dade Transit is still headquartered in the senior center. But over the years the transit system has mushroomed both in size and inclusiveness. Now Dade Transit's five full-time employees and one part-timer stay busy driving the program's five vans, and Ms. Cash says they also tie up another van
that belongs to the county at large. So six vans are in service and Ms. Cash says she could use four more.
One reason ridership has expanded is that these days you don't need gray hair to climb aboard. "I guess it is mainly elderly, but we have more and more younger people that don't have vehicles, or their vehicle's torn up and can't make it to Chattanooga," said Ms. Cash. "It's whatever the need is, we'll see what we can work in."
In Dade as elsewhere, public transportation is now for anyone who needs a ride, and Ms. Cash has found that in Dade as elsewhere that means all sorts of people: Mothers getting their children to medical or counseling sessions, workers commuting to jobs, sick people--not necessarily old--going to and from medical appointments. "It's all ages," said Ms. Cash.
The fact that getting people from point A to point B promotes better employment opportunity, health care access, education possibilities and community involvement has long been apparent to government. Every big city has public transportation.
In the country, however, practically the only point-A-to-point-B option has long been the private car, and practically the only government concession made to rural transportation has been the interstate highway system--an option uniquely unsuitable for those who don't drive, such as the handicapped, the elderly and the poor.
Only recently has public transportation in the vast American heartland become a matter of public policy. Some may say it's late in coming. "Rural America" is defined for transit purposes as more than 80 percent of the national landmass. Though only 20-odd percent of the population now live there, that still means a lot of Americans--Americans whose cars break down, or who get too old or too sick to drive them, and still have places to go.
Thus the federal government has made public transportation grants available to rural counties across the nation and many including Dade are taking advantage of them. Dade Transit now gets a yearly $133,578 U.S. 5311 grant , which the county matches, to operate its van service. Another $38,000 supplementary grant covers extras for senior services that might otherwise fall to local taxpayers.
The vans themselves belong to Uncle Sam. When one reaches 100,000 miles, Sam sends a new one to replace it and the county has the option to turn the old van in or buy it. That's where Dade's "extra" van came from, and Ms. Cash says the county is considering buying another one when it comes up for replacement this year. County 4-H doesn't have its own wheels, and neither does Head Start. "They need their own van," says Ms. Cash of the latter. Dade Transit has a few Head Start riders, and that means extra trips because a parent must accompany minor children to and from classes.
How does Dade Transit work?
"It's not a taxi service," Ms Cash has to repeat several times a week. "It's not on demand." Riders are asked to book three days ahead for Dade trips and at least a week in advance for Chattanooga. Some riders drive themselves to the senior center for pickup, but Dade Transit vans pick many riders up at their homes and deliver them back there.
Hours are early. Drivers begin work at 5 a.m., starting from their homes and
picking up passengers on their way in. The day is over by 3 p.m.
Dade residents 60 and older ride the vans for free. Younger riders pay $4 round-trip
around the county and $6 round-trip to Chattanooga, where Dade Transit vans go to certain central locations, mostly medical complexes. "The only reason we're allowed to go to Chattanooga is because we don't have doctors and hospitals right here in Dade County," said Ms. Cash. "That really bothers a lot of our people too, taking people out of the county. But your heart doctors, your lung doctors, you have to go into Chattanooga for that."
Ms. Cash says she also sometimes catches flak from taxpayers who object to the vans stopping at the Tiftonia Walmart to let riders pick up prescriptions, or who imagine they're regularly going to other out-of-town shopping meccas. That money should be spent in Dade, she's told.
It's true the senior center takes participating seniors someplace special once a month for a dinner out, shopping or some other treat, says Ms. Cash. "Some people are upset about us letting them do that, but I think they well deserve it," she said.
(She admits she gets her hackles up easily when it comes to her cherished seniors. "I'm really sensitive because I have a love of elderly people and I have a love for children," she said. "In between I think should be able to take care of themselves.")
But as for taking riders to destinations taxpayers might consider frivolous, Ms. Cash says drivers and vehicles are spread thin enough on the ground that there's not much room for frills. "We really don't have enough vans to do a lot of extracurricular for anybody who wants it," she said. "We mainly have to pinpoint their needs, like paying their bills and going to the doctor."
Who rides the vans?
Lots of people ride the vans for lots of reason, but one big category is medical. The vans regularly go to medical offices in Dade and to the major hospital areas in Chattanooga.
Not all these medical riders are elderly and not all are incapable of driving--in normal circumstances. Dade Transit has transported dialysis patients in their 30s, said Ms. Cash. After a day spent on the machines, she explained, some patients are so sick they could no more drive themselves home than fly to the moon. Drivers have had to deliver dialysis patients to the emergency room instead of home more than once.
Cost is another factor. Dialysis patients typically spend three days a week on the machines. Ms. Cash said she'd spoken with a woman who could drive herself but was looking into taking the vans into town as a way to help defray the already overwhelming expense of treatment. "She's 70 years old and she couldn't afford to go back and forth," said Ms. Cash.
Otherwise: one young woman rides the vans to her GED classes, another to visit her child in foster care. The vans take one employee to work at Wendy's, another to a job at Covenant College. One senior rides into town with a load of medical-office-bound patients and works out at the nearby YMCA.
Driver Tuck Knight looks through the files. Dade Transit drivers try to keep up with their riders' schedules and special needs, and all are trained in safety and CPR.
As luck woud have it, when The Planet had an opportunity to hitch a ride on a Dade Transit van, it was on the senior center's regular weekly shopping trip around Trenton. But even so, The Planet's fellow passengers on that trip provided a interesting range of Transit ridership.
Linda resettled from Boston to Wildwood to be near her son, then stayed to be near her grandchild after the son died tragically young of cancer. She likes it here but at first there was one problem: You don't drive in Bean Town. "I took the T all over the city," she says.
Linda didn't have a car, Dade didn't have a "T," and that left her stranded. "I lived out in freakin' Wildwood," she told The Planet. "I had nothing. I sat."
So she was delighted to discover the existence not just of Dade Transit but of the senior center, which has given her a social outlet. "Some of us are grumpy, some of us are happy," she said. "We're just a group of people. But I'm telling you, this is the best."
At 65, Linda is a powerhouse of personality with a booming Boston voice, tons of energy and not a frail molecule in her body. She's on a waiting list for an apartment at Lookout Pointe, and when that comes through she plans to get a bicycle and a part-time job in Trenton. Meanwhile, she rides the van to Food City to buy shrimp (the grandchild is due for dinner) and Dollar Tree for prizes for the center's bingo game.
The other riders seemed older than Linda--The Planet didn't ask--but also fiercely independent. "I'm the troublemaker of the center," says one named Betty, proudly. Betty says she's been using the vans to get around for five or six years now. "I was determined that I wasn't going to give up driving but I had to," she said. Macular degeneration, she explained. You can't drive if you can't see.
A third rider, Patricia, says she's taking the van today because her car needs a battery, and she hurt her leg. Another rider, Mary, also walks with a cane, slowly, and can't participate much in the conversation because of hearing loss. When she has finished her shopping at Ingle's, the driver leaps out to retrieve her bags and help her into the van.
"What did I tell you?" says Linda. "These people are absolutely amazing--kind, respectful."
The driver, Carrie Jones, explains that some Transit riders need help and others want to do it themselves. Some need to be picked up at the door and others like to walk across town for the exercise, catching up with her at the next stop. "It took a while to get to know everybody ... what they liked and who could get on and who could get off. It took time, but I've got it figured out now," she says.
Dade Transit drivers are trained in CPR and safety. Most of them have had occasion to be thankful for that training. But Annette Cash says the drivers all have another quality she's especially proud of: compassion. That's an important asset because to regular riders, drivers get to be the next thing to family. "They see us every day," she said. "They may not see family members once a month, once a year."
How does it compare?
Walker County next door to Dade over the mountain has 12 vans. Anybody can ride them, with no price break for seniors. It costs $4 there and another $4 back again. As in Dade, riders must call for an appointment.
Over the border in Alabama, DeKalb County has five vans. These transport seniors to seven nutrition centers around the county for free. Otherwise it costs $2 to $4 to ride, depending on where you're going. Riders must call ahead to see if vans can pick them up at home--it has to be a place the vans can get to and can turn around in the driveway.
The commercial carrier Greyhound still has a bus that goes through Trenton. Riders may call or book online. Costs vary according to when you book but generally a trip to Chattanooga costs about $9.
Katie Smith gets off the Greyhound as it stops on the Trenton town square.
There is no taxi service in Dade--"The gentleman died," says Ms. Cash of the county's late cab proprietor. Chattanooga taxi services will come to Dade but be prepared to kiss your savings goodbye. Ms. Cash said a transit rider paid over $100 to ride to Hixson.
Need a ride?
Do you need a lift somewhere? The number for Dade Transit is (706) 657-8277. Again, all ages are welcome, but please remember to book three days in advance.
One caveat: As in other rural counties, Ms. Cash says transit services are available for county residents only. So that blocks tourists as well as neighbors who live over the two state lines that border Dade.
Which differentiates it from true public transportation such as a city train or bus, which is open to everyone. Will that ever come to Dade County, which after all is a tourist destination, not to mention the center of the universe, to which exotic persons from all corners of the globe are sucked by mysterious galactic forces?
Time will tell, and when it does, so will The Dade Planet. Stay tuned.