A few times a month, Marianne Hunt grabs her phone and dials 919-202-5030.
That’s the number to JCATS, the Johnston County Area Transit System.
Hunt, a 67-year-old Clayton resident who is blind, calls because she’s looking for a ride. Sometimes it’s to see her doctor. Other times, she needs to visit her hairdresser or go to Walmart, where store employees walk around with her as she shops.
But for Hunt and many other Johnston County residents, a ride with JCATS can be hard to come by.
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Among North Carolina’s 80 rural and regional transit systems, JCATS denies the second highest number of ride requests, according to N.C. Department of Transportation data. During the last fiscal year, for instance, JCATS denied 1,110 requests, or nearly 16 percent of the 7,081 denials statewide.
The denial rate appears to be increasing too, as the system said it rejected 1,600 requests from August to October of this year. Currently, JCATS is denying about 12 rides a day.
JCATS contracts with a number of human service agencies, which together provide about 68 percent of the transit system’s revenue. That means JCATS almost always guarantees rides for those making requests through the Johnston County Department of Social Services, Johnston County Mental Health Center and a half-dozen other agencies. Those riders, often Medicaid patients taking trips to the doctor, represent about half of the system’s clientele.
The other half are residents who don’t qualify for services through a contracting agency. Trip requests from those residents, or the “rural general public” in transit speak, are secondary to requests from human service agency clients. Members of the general public get rides only if they live close to an agency-scheduled route and if JCATS has enough money.
That’s frustrating to riders like Hunt, who doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. She said she can typically count on about two rides per month. After that, JCATS often denies her requests, she said.
“I know these people on Medicaid need a ride,” Hunt said. “But it makes me so upset to think I pay all these taxes, but because I’m a senior and because I can’t see to drive, I can’t get a ride.”
The number of requests JCATS denies is far fewer than the transit system’s total ridership of about 105,000 and represents about 2 percent of the nearly 49,000 non-contract trips the system makes each year.
Funding not enough
Across the state, rural transit systems largely use a request-based model for picking up riders. Some systems do have fixed routes, where riders can count on a bus stopping at a particular spot every hour or so, but many use a curb-to-curb or door-to-door approach.
Johnston County doesn’t have any fixed routes. And every day, JCATS creates a different set of custom routes based on where staff knows it will pick up riders who are guaranteed trips through a human service agency.
Members of the general public are allowed to request rides. However, their request must be within three miles of a JCATS route that day and must match the route’s time frame, said Neal Davis, director of JCATS and its parent nonprofit, Community and Senior Services of Johnston County.
Even then, it’s not guaranteed that a member of the general public will get a ride. The JCATS staff next considers if the transit system has enough money to pay for the trip.
The $1.8 million the transit system’s contracting agencies pay JCATS each year covers the cost of providing rides to those clients, Davis said. JCATS has to find money for the general public from other sources in its $2.7 million budget, which largely comes from federal and state grants.
This year, about $140,000 in NCDOT grant funding is designated for general public transportation, as is the roughly $25,500 the system will get from the $2 fares it charges riders each way. JCATS also gets about $8,000 for general public riders over age 60 or who are disabled, as well as about $99,000 to take public riders to work.
All combined, Davis said the nearly $250,000 for public rides isn’t enough for a growing number of requests.
“At the end of the day, we have to operate in the black,” Davis said. “No one’s going to bail us out if we take $100,000 extra of general public requests and the money isn’t there.”
“I could see us making a big step forward if we had another $300,000 to $500,000 designated for general purpose transportation to try and address the denied ride category.
Of the 1,600 rides JCATS says it denied from August to October, about 800 were because the request was too far away from a JCATS route. Another 292 were because of a lack of funding.
Davis said limiting general public requests to within three miles of a JCATS route helps stretch limited dollars.
Of the other denials since August, 115 came from out-of-county requests; JCATS doesn’t take general public riders outside the county. Another 236 were because an appointment time wasn’t available, 110 were attributed to no driver being available, and 61 were because of full buses.
While JCATS charges general public riders $2 fares each way, the actual cost of each trip is about $17, the system says. Last fiscal year, despite ranking 10th in non-contract trips statewide, the $19,669 JCATS received in fares ranked 44th.
But raising fares isn’t a viable option, Davis said, because federal and state agencies encourage transit systems to keep rates low. And increasing rates for the contracted agencies doesn’t seem fair, he said.
Other options include seeking additional grants or asking Johnston towns to chip in.
Johnston County government has historically paid a required grant match for JCATS each year. This year, the county ponied up $80,000.
County Commissioner Jeff Carver said he’s concerned that JCATS is denying that many riders, especially those with disabilities. But he said giving more money would be tough.
“We are on a limited budget ourselves,” Carver said.
“We are slicing the pie pretty thin to provide what we do provide each year.”
Carver said he is sure, though, that he will sit down with Davis and other county officials to guarantee that if general public riders qualify for a trip, they get it.
“As our county continues to grow, we have got to think about these things,” he said.
That’s good news to 60-year-old Minnie Feaster, who lives just across from Hunt in Parkside Village apartments in Clayton.
Feaster, who had a stroke at age 45, can’t drive and had counted on JCATS to keep her independence.
“I really hate asking people to do things,” Feaster said.
But about two months ago, she noticed JCATS denying her ride requests more often. Now Feaster, who doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, said she has to call taxi companies, which have quoted her $40 for trips to a doctor about two miles away.
“It has affected me financially,” Feaster said.
“You see on the back of their buses, ‘JCATS Is for Everyone,’ ” she continued. “Well, it’s not for Minnie.”