Communities split over handi-bus need

By: By Tanya Kostiw

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Feb 01, 2012 06:00 am

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Most people do not give their transportation needs much thought as it usually as simple as hopping into a car, but there are some whose lives are significantly impacted by their limited mobility.

There is no community handi-bus in the local area and whether there is a need for the service depends on who you ask.

The Town of Okotoks offers a subsidized transportation program for seniors and people with disabilities, however, its contracted company does not have a vehicle with a wheelchair ramp.

The town’s Family and Community Supports Services team lead Debbie Posey said the program maybe receives four to six requests per year for a handi-capable vehicle.

“Having a handi-bus is an expensive proposition and at the moment our numbers don’t seem to indicate that we need a dedicated handi-bus,” she said.

Posey said most clients in wheelchairs are able to stand and transfer into a regular taxi.

She said the Town is concerned about providing a solution for those who require a wheelchair lift.

“Even though it’s a small number, those folks that are in the wheelchairs really need help with the transportation often and so you hate to leave a vulnerable segment of the population out even though it’s a very low demographic,” she said.

There is one taxi company in town that has a handi-capable vehicle, however, Posey said it would not make sense for the Town to contract them exclusively based on that.

“So it’s always a bit agonizing to try and meet everybody’s needs that make it fair for all the cab companies as well,” she said.

Ok Taxi is presently the only cab company in Okotoks with a wheelchair accessible vehicle with a ramp.

“We use it quite regularly,” said president and owner Reg Clemence, although he would not reveal a specific number, citing confidentiality reasons.

The vehicle is also used throughout the MD of Foothills and advance booking is required as it could be anywhere, he added. Rates include a $15 premium on top of a regular fare for loading and unloading.

Diamond Valley Taxi owner Donald Lien owned a handi-capable vehicle four years ago, but said it was not feasible to continue providing the service.

A larger vehicle incurs higher costs for things like insurance and after crunching the numbers, he determined he could not longer do it.

Posey said the Town is exploring whether it could partner with other communities, like High River, but hasn’t come up with a perfect solution yet.

High River has a handi-bus and the non-profit organization charges $5 for a one-way trip within High River and $35 per hour outside of town.

High River handi-bus operations manger Sheila Belanger said if the organization had a location in Okotoks, rates would be more affordable for residents outside of High River. She said she hoped to offer the service in Okotoks three days a week when she took over the company a year ago, but despite having a vehicle and driver ready, she would need funding.

“That’s my only obstacle,” she said.

Belanger said there is a huge need for her handi-bus service, although only about five per cent of her business includes people in wheelchairs. In the past, she said she had regular customers from Okotoks.

Both government and private funding have been down the past few years, she added.

The Town of Okotoks is currently in the second phase of a transit feasibility study under the Calgary Regional Transit Plan. If the Town were to implement transit, it would include vehicles with wheelchair lifts as one of plan’s strategies is to be fully accessible, explained Dawn Smith, Okotoks’ environment and sustainability co-ordinator.

The Towns of Black Diamond and Turner Valley run a joint subsidized transportation program similar to Okotoks’ program, which also does not have a handi-capable vehicle.

Black Diamond’s Family and Community Support Services co-ordinator Suzan Nagel said the community needs a vehicle to transport people in wheelchairs.

She wasn’t able to provide an estimate of how many people would require the service as she began her position after the program began and believes people know it doesn’t offer a handi-capable vehicle, she said.

“Everybody knows it’s just a taxi, it’s just a car. So they don’t even bother looking in that direction,” Nagel said.

She added a taxi driver approached her about possibly using the hospital’s handi-capable vehicle, but despite inquiring, did not have any success.

Rising Sun Long Term Care in Black Diamond has a handi-capable van for its residents, but it is only for recreational purposes, explained Richelle Flitton, the facility’s recreational therapist.

If residents need to go to a specialist appointment, their family or an ambulance transports them. She said a handi-bus could be helpful and thinks it would benefit people in the community as well.

Flitton said there are about 10 residents at Rising Sun confined to wheelchairs, but didn’t anticipate they would all benefit from a handi-bus. Residents might only require the service once or twice during a two to four year stay at the facility, she added.

Black Diamond’s High Country Lodge and Okotoks’ Sandstone Lodge, supportive living facilities under the Foothills Foundation, also have handi-capable buses for recreational outings. To live in the facilities, residents must have enough mobility to be able to transfer from a wheelchair.

However, Sandstone Lodge manager Christine Lomenda said she still sees a need for a handi-bus in the community.

“It would definitely be beneficial for those that are in a wheelchair and do have difficulty, but I don’t have that many (residents in wheelchairs),” she said.

Similar to Okotoks, Black Diamond and Turner Valley, the MD of Foothills offers a subsidized transportation service for seniors and disabled people. Eligible residents use one of the contracted providers depending on where they live, including OK Taxi, which has a handi-capable vehicle, and the High River Handibus.

The MD’s Family and Community Support Services co-ordinator Amanda Midgley said she was only aware of one client who uses OK Taxi’s handi-capable vehicle, although clients are responsible for arranging their own vehicle.

Midgely said she doesn’t see the need for a handi-bus in the community from her point of view.

The provincial government does not provide funding directly for transportation. Municipalities can use funds from the Municipal Sustainability Initiative for transportation, which could include purchasing a handi-capable vehicle.


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