When Harriet Johnson moved to Sumner from Seattle, she was told there would be plenty of buses to help her get around.
“I have bad eyesight,” said Johnson, 63. “The only way I can get around is to use the buses.”
But public transit service cuts left her navigating four bus routes just to get to the grocery store and back.
Now Johnson uses a free shuttle service, part of Pierce County’s Beyond the Borders transit program, and she easily makes regular trips to the store and the city’s senior center.
“I very much appreciate this service,” she said. “It really helps me get out and about.”
Now that program is temporarily offering more flexibility for eligible riders who use on-demand shuttles to access basic services.
Beyond the Borders already operates the free routes on weekdays for residents in Sumner, South Hill, Spanaway and other parts of east Pierce County. They run regularly on set schedules, the rides Harriet Johnson catches.
Eligible riders include seniors, youths, low-income residents and those with disabilities.
The program, which has operated in the county for more than a decade, also offers a reservation-only system. Residents call 211, the county’s human resources information hub, to schedule a pick-up from a designated location 24 hours in advance.
But the traditional reservation service limited riders to certain types of trips: dialysis treatments, work-related training and employment-related destinations.
Now, a pilot program allows riders in and around Sumner, Bonney Lake and Buckley to reserve door-to-door shuttle pick-ups and drop-offs at destinations not allowed by the traditional reservation-only service.
Riders can use the shuttles to go shopping, visit the food bank and more. The new service is scheduled to end in June, but if it’s successful it could operate longer.
The expansion aims to help riders who were still struggling to access basic services.
“The goal is to fill (needs) that weren’t already being met,” said Jerri Kelly, transportation program specialist for Beyond the Borders.
The door-to-door trips are limited to three per month. Riders still must call 211 with at least 24 hours’ notice. Riders share shuttles whenever possible.
Beyond the Borders is part of Community Connections, an arm of Pierce County government that provides services to residents in need to improve their quality of life and promote self-sufficiency.
The transit services are grant-funded, Kelly said, and costs vary from year to year. She said applications have been submitted for the new grant cycle that begins July 1.
“We expect that the program will be funded,” Kelly said.
The pilot program launched last month. So far, interest has been lower than expected; about 10 riders per month use it.
Kelly said it’s difficult to get around in rural parts of east county, but Beyond the Borders helps people do so without forcing them to leave their communities.
Cities have struggled for several years to fill a void in public transit after bus service in East Pierce decreased. It started suffering about four years ago when the first of two Pierce Transit sales tax measures failed on the ballot.
Faced with declining service, Bonney Lake, Sumner, Orting and Buckley asked to be removed from transit district boundaries, taking their tax revenue with them.
A second Pierce Transit measure failed in 2012.
Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow said the pilot program supplements Beyond the Borders’ already beneficial services.
He stressed that the expanded program is important for demonstrating demand, and he encourages eligible residents to use the service.
“If people don’t use it, we’ll lose it,” Enslow said.