Andrew Iciek depends on Allegan County Transportation to maintain his independence. Courtesy
Allegan County Transportation provides its customers with bus rides to medical appointments and grocery shopping, allowing clients who don’t drive maintain independence. Courtesy
Dan Wedge is Executive Director of Services for Allegan County, with transportation services falling under his purview. Courtesy
Public transportation is the only viable means of transportation for some individuals. It can mean the difference between having a social life or having none. It can be the only way to access necessities or medical appointments. It can mean the difference between independence and total isolation.
In rural areas, where scheduled routes do not exist, the challenge of travel is magnified.
Allegan County Transportation (ACT) provides the means of independence for many people in this rural county. The freedom offered by automobile ownership and the ability to operate a vehicle is taken for granted by those who enjoy it. Not all share the experience.
Andrew Iciek is a regular customer of ACT, traveling from Dorr to Plainwell each Friday to get groceries and necessities. Without the service, the 31-year-old would have to depend entirely upon the generosity of others to either drive him for errands and appointments or pick up and deliver his necessities.
Without ACT, he would be essentially homebound. Diagnosed at age 2 with spastic cerebral palsy, Iciek has lived his entire adult life depending on public transportation to maintain independence and a social life, and be part of society.
“ACT is basically like my car,” Iciek says. “Since I don’t drive, it is very important to me.”
Rides are scheduled in advance, and Iciek usually reserves a spot each Friday for the next week’s grocery shopping event. He double checks his reservation on Thursday afternoon, and again Friday morning to get current pickup time.
The ACT story
Dan Wedge is Executive Director of Services for Allegan County, with transportation services falling under his purview.
“The initial focus for the (ACT) program was on jobs, and it evolved into a sort of public transportation program over time,” Wedge says.
Created in 2000 through a Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Job Access Reverse Commute grant, the county began with three vehicles and a focus on employment transportation. In 2003, additional specialized services for seniors and clients with disabilities were added.
In 2004, ACT began receiving federal and state matching funds, augmenting the agency fees paid to transport clients to appointments. Current partners include Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Works, Allegan County Commission on Aging, Evergreen Commons, Allegan County Medical Care Community, Allegan County Community Mental Health, and Outlook Academy.
When an agency provides transportation for a client to an office visit or work, the agency pays for the ride. Riders who are only a few miles off the main trunk lines can sometimes catch a ride for a minimal cost if there are vacant seats not reserved by agencies.
“We’ve done our best to add as much extra service as we could in addition to the contract work,” Wedge says.
Peak use came in 2016, when the service provided 55,336 rides. Agency partner funding has declined since 2017, leaving less opportunity for non-agency riders to claim open seats. In 2019, ACT served only 36,097 riders. In 2018, 404 ride requests were declined due to lack of seat space and fewer trip numbers. The following year, 529 service requests had to be declined.
State and federal funds could still be available, but with little or no matching local funding, those extra dollars to stretch the budget and increase services cannot be accessed.
According to Wedge, ACT has been using the county’s transit fund balance to cover its budget shortfall for the past three years. ACT will deplete the fund balance by the end of 2021, and local funding will be required if the service is to continue, he says.
County commissioners are aware of the issue, but a countywide transportation mileage has yet to come to a public vote.
Community impact: More than a ride
Harley Pallett, who is legally blind, has been using ACT services for seven years.
“I go to Walmart every Thursday,” says the 82-year-old former mayor of Plainwell.
It is more than a trip for necessities. “It is a social event,” says Pallett, who looks forward to meeting others for coffee or a sandwich at the Subway inside Walmart — when the shop is open for dine-in service.
Like many riders, Pallett and Iciek occasionally use the bus for medical services, a demand that Wedge says is on the rise countywide, particularly for dialysis services.
“The bus means everything to me,” Pallett says. “My son is nearby but has his own life and has to work. He can’t just take off all the time to drive me for groceries. And at 82, well, most of my friends are gone.”
The freedom to walk in a store allows both men to stretch muscles and exercise, something they both desire to do. However, physical limitations prevent them from safely walking on uneven sidewalks or busy roadways for any length of time or distance.
Wedge says ACT riders impact the local economy by spending their money in the neighborhood rather than driving to the next town to shop.
Buses don’t stop for a pandemic
The pandemic may have forced some changes on the ACT system, but buses never stopped rolling for essential services and medical appointments.
“We made sure our senior and disability populations had access to food and essential services through the lockdown,” Wedge says.
To achieve social distancing requirements, passenger numbers are limited to the driver and three riders. Front and rear windows remain slightly open to increase air flow, and fold-down seats behind the driver are locked in a no-ride position to keep passengers and driver distanced as much as possible.
Riders and drivers faithfully wear masks and, in addition to the normal cleaning and sanitization, drivers do a midday cleaning and wipe-down. Sneeze guards have also been installed.
Since rider limits are temporarily in place, more ride requests must be declined. Fortunately, total ride request numbers have decreased since public health measures were implemented in March.
Through a partnership with Area Council on Aging, ACT drivers were tasked with delivering food boxes through the USDA’s Farmers to Families program, which provided emergency food resources to families in need. ACT drivers were delighted to deliver several boxes to seniors who signed up to receive a box of fresh, local foods.
Service gaps and future needs
Iciek, formerly of Kentwood, was a regular on The Rapid, which provides public transportation for Grand Rapids and surrounding communities. He had an active social life with friends and enjoyed church activities. The limited amount of public transportation service he found upon his return to Allegan County was surprising and disappointing.
He can recall the last movie he saw, in spring 2019, before ACT ended the practice of multi-stop trips for individual riders. He misses church activities most, since they take place on evenings and weekends, when ACT does not operate.
Weekend bus service could fill a need for those seeking transportation to employment, recreational activities, medical errands, and religious functions. Evening and late afternoon service could benefit rehabilitation providers, nursing homes, drug treatment centers, probation and parole clients, school of choice and after-school programs.
Because people are not daily riders on public transportation, Wedge says, most people just don’t think about it.
“But it is so much more than providing service for senior and disability communities,” he says. “It is providing transportation for after-school programs, for the single parent trying to complete a GED and better their status to upgrade their family and income.
“I compare it to the fire service. You never want the fire service to show up at your door, but if your house is on fire, you are sure glad it’s there. I think public transportation is that type of service. You never know when you or a family member needs that service until it impacts you.”