Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Bus or shuttle? Elderly woman, Pierce Transit don’t fully agree

Susan Barnett wheels herself out in front of her Tacoma home to catch a Pierce County shuttle. Barnett is a wheelchair-bound Tacoma woman who takes a Pierce Transit shuttle to and from church and her bank once a week. For any other trip, Pierce Transit says she must take a fixed-route bus, which can involve a shuttle from her home to a transit center.
Susan Barnett wheels herself out in front of her Tacoma home to catch a Pierce County shuttle. Barnett is a wheelchair-bound Tacoma woman who takes a Pierce Transit shuttle to and from church and her bank once a week. For any other trip, Pierce Transit says she must take a fixed-route bus, which can involve a shuttle from her home to a transit center. Staff photographer

None of it has gone well for Susan Barnett. Not since her daughter traveled all the way to Alabama to pick her up from a senior home and bring her back to Tacoma last year.

“The nursing home kept things from my daughter,” Barnett said. “They didn’t tell her how difficult my care is. It takes a lot to change me, get me dressed, get me into my wheelchair. I can’t walk at all. I can barely stand.”

Barnett said she was afraid to interrupt while the nursing home staff talked to her daughter, Kimberly Smith-Gill.

There have been issues to overcome in Tacoma, starting with building a wheelchair ramp at Smith-Gill’s home. While her daughter has tried to stay in school at Evergreen State College and find time for homework, Barnett has required near constant attention.

Barnett, 78, needs to be bathed, dressed, fed. She occasionally has bathroom issues, is always in pain.

“My right hip is bone-on-bone and I’ve got no strength in my legs. I can’t remember the condition they said it was,” Barnett said. “Then they told me I have sepsis.”

And then there are her dealings with Pierce Transit.

“They send a shuttle for me every week to take me to church and back, another to take me to my bank and back home,” Barnett said. “But they won’t take me to a grocery store or a senior center.”

This means Barnett doesn’t get out much.

Pierce Transit provides extensive shuttle service in Pierce County, though it’s expensive. The transit agency said every shuttle trip costs it $53, while riders pay 75 cents per trip. The budget for shuttle transport in 2015 is estimated at just over $20 million.

Cost, however, is not what determines who gets shuttle service and who must ride a standard fixed-route bus.

“By law, we only provide it if the customer can’t ride the bus,” transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet said. “We provide it to anyone who needs it.”

The process for getting shuttle service begins with an application.

“We must determine if their disability prevents them from accessing our regular routes,” Japhet said. “For a person in a wheelchair, we do a one-on-one interview, and go to the bus with them.”

“Can they embark, disembark, travel safely?”

“We look at the physical environment: Can they make the grade of any hill between their home and the bus stop? We look at curb cutouts, physical terrain. We help them plan their route.”

That, Japhet said, was the reason Barnett was given some shuttle service and denied it in other cases

If it’s determined the customer can’t get to a bus stop or safely disembark at their planned destination, Japhet said a shuttle is approved.

In some cases, it’s a half-and-half arrangement. The shuttle will pick up customers at home and take them to a transit center, where they catch a bus to their destination. For the return trip, they take the bus to the transit center, call a shuttle and are driven home.

For Barnett, that process was a long one. She consulted her doctor at the Veterans Administration hospital, who wrote a note to Pierce Transit suggesting her patient needed shuttle service to all her destinations.

When Pierce Transit said no, Barnett and her daughter appealed the decision.

“She’s a little old lady who can’t take the bus because she’s in pain,” Smith-Gill said. “Why can’t she be picked up and dropped off at a certain spot?”

The appeal was heard by a two-person panel, a nurse/vocational counselor and claims administrator. It was denied.

“Being in a wheelchair doesn’t equate to every ride you take being on a shuttle,” Japhet said. “Every bus in our system is wheelchair-accessible.

“When the appeal was denied, it was recommend a travel trainer work with them. The trainer will ride with you for days, even weeks, to try to insure the customer learns the routes and can handle the travel.

“We did that in this case.”

Barnett and her daughter disagree with Pierce Transit about whether she can ride a bus. PT offered Barnett a trainer, but she declined the offer.

“If I had a van that handled her wheelchair, it would be a different story,” Smith- Gill said. “I worry about her being stuck at home. I need the break, too. The shuttle would be a huge difference in time and safety.”

So Barnett sits at home more than she’d like. At times, she wishes she were back in Alabama.

“Mama is stuck in her ways,” her daughter said.

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