Two years ago, Minnie Feaster paid a cab driver $40 to take her to the pharmacy and back, a round trip of fewer than three miles.
Feaster, who is in her 60s and doesn’t drive because of a stroke many years ago, said she had to pay the money because her other option, Johnston County transit system JCATS, constantly denied her ride requests.
It turned out, she wasn’t the only one. In 2014, JCATS said “no” to more than 1,900 ride requests throughout the county. The transit system’s funding model requires it to give priority to riders on Medicaid through contracts with the Department of Social Services, the Johnston County Mental Health Center and other agencies.
But those contracts didn’t leave much room for others like Feaster, who has a disability, or Marianne Hunt of Clayton, who is blind but couldn’t get a ride either.
Neal Davis, director of Community and Senior Services of Johnston County, which operates JCATS, said those non-Medicaid riders are known in the system as the “rural general public.” But without subsidies available through the contracts, they were often too expensive to transport. All riding hopefuls call the day before they need to be somewhere and find out by the afternoon if they fit into the schedule or if the system can afford to take them.
“It’s not always a lack of seats,” Davis said. “It’s often a lack of ways to pay for that seat.”
Over the past year and a half, though, JCATS has cut its denial rate by more than 90 percent by using county and grant funds earmarked for the riders falling through the subsidy cracks. Through an initiative called “Community Funded Transit,” Johnston County chipped in $25,000, and Davis said denials dropped last year to 258. At 80 denials into June this year, Davis said, JCATS is on pace to deny fewer than 200 rides in 2016.
“These riders were in a void,” Davis said. “We have a contract with DSS, and under those terms, we have to give priority to those Medicaid riders. If they’re eligible and DSS authorizes [them to ride], we’re obligated to make sure we can do that. Now we can tag these other riders to a funding source, and they stand a better chance of getting a ride.”
For now, Johnston County is the only local government chipping in for the JCATS general riders, but Davis said he hopes Johnston towns will see value in appropriating dollars.
“We are trying to use this as a way to prove to [the towns[ that we can earmark money specifically to specifications they give us,” Davis said. “The way we structure the program, we can assure them we won’t take anyone who doesn’t meet their criteria.”
Regardless of who’s paying, and depending on where they’re going, the average JCATS rider costs $15 each way to the system. Over the past 18 months, the system has upped fares for general riders from $2 to $3 and finally to $5. Davis said the fare increases are more about driving down demand than recouping expenses.
“If the fare is too low, it attracts people who have cars but think it’s cheaper to take the bus,” Davis said. “They might be taking up a seat that someone else really might need. The fares have to balance demand. We have to make sure we’re really taking the people who most need the ride.”
The de facto transit director wanting to see able residents use their cars rather than the bus runs contrary to most public transit philosophies, which aim to unclog highways and lessen emissions. But Davis points out that JCATS and other rural transit systems can’t run like a city bus system; their goals and realities are much different.
“The problem we have is Johnston County is a large, rural, non-urbanized community,” Davis said. “There aren’t bus stops. There’s no place for people to put bus stops that are within walking distance from home. There are not high-density areas where you can walk a block or two to a bus stop. We could have a route to take them all to Walmart, but where do you drop them off?”
Annually, JCATS’ fleet of 32 buses offers slightly more than 100,000 rides annually. Most of the riders are older adults making their way to a doctor’s office or some other medical appointment. The general riders, though, are different. The top destination for those riders is Johnston Community College, suggesting students stand to benefit the most from JCATS’ added funding.
Feaster and Hunt agree that things are better, and each says they can get at least a couple of rides per week if they want. At its worst, Hunt said, JCATS told her she simply couldn’t ride at all, a move she said felt like being kicked off the bus.
“The difference is night and day,” Hunt said. “I’m blind, so I don’t drive at all. I really depend on them.”
Feaster credits Davis and county commissioners for the changes and said she feels like her voice was heard.
“Last year, I’ve gotten lots of rides,” Feaster said. “I’m just so happy. When it was nothing, I was in bad shape.”
Feaster and Hunt said they hope riders discouraged by JCATS will give the system another try. Six months ago, Louis Allen, an 86-year-old who lives in the same development as Hunt, said she tried to get a ride and was told she wasn’t eligible.
“I’ve seen that bus go by and wondered how I could use it,” Allen said. “[Marianne] said to call, but I was told I wasn’t eligible to ride it. I’m 86 and have a car, but I’ve never been in an accident. I’ve called a taxi a time or two.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson