SIDNEY — Shelby County residents who don’t own cars have a hard time finding transportation when they need it, especially if they need it after hours, on weekends or holidays, or if they need it to cross county lines.
Coordinated transportation available throughout the county, even at odd times of day, is a goal of Catholic Social Services in Sidney, which has taken the lead role in developing a new transportation plan.
The agency won a $160,000 Federal Transit Administration grant, administed by the Ohio Department of Transportation, to undertake the planning process. Catholic Social Services had to provide an additional $40,000 to the project. With those funds, Catholic Social Services hired Michelle Caserta in 2016 to serve as mobility manager and oversee the project.
A similar plan was created in Shelby County in 2008 by RLS & Associates. That plan, for the most part, sat on a shelf because there was no one to manage its implementation. Caserta will have responsiblity for making sure that doesn’t happen this time around, she said recently.
“The FTA requires agencies getting funds to have transportation plans,” she said. “FTA is the driving force behind (this effort).”
Caserta has been identifying key stakeholders — “either those who provide transportation or need transportation for an organization or a business,” she said — to meet initially this month. She hopes to begin focus group activity within the next few weeks. Some of the stakeholders to be included are Shelby Public Transit, city, village and county governments, Shelby County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the Senior Center, social service agencies, area nursing homes and major employers. Interested residents will be invited to participate in the focus groups. A draft of the plan must be submitted to ODOT by Nov. 17.
“We’re assessing the needs and gaps of transportation,” Caserta said.
“And strategically planning what to do for the next four years,” added Katherine Sell, Catholic Social Services Northern County director.
They began by looking at the 2008 plan and at how much of its goals have been accomplished. There were four goals then: to educate local government officials and agencies about the benefits of public and coordinated transportation, to create a structure to provide more affordable transportation service to the general public within Shelby County, to provide transportation that suports employment in the county and region through rideshare programs, and to increase out-of-county service to Dayton, Columbus, Troy and Lima and reduce duplication of service through multi-county coordination.
“Some of that has been done,” Sell said. “Some of the education has taken place.”
Caserta noted that several surrounding counties have transportation plans in place. Planning has been made easier by ODOT, who created a coordinated-transportation plan template.
“The (2008) plan as it now stands will be put into the template and updated,” Caserta said. “The plan targets three main populations: seniors, the disabled and low-income people. But transportation doesn’t end with those individuals.”
She noted that there is a number of local agencies that own vehicles — vehicles which stand unused during long periods of a 24-hour day when their agencies don’t need them. The reasons for that are complicated and include liability issues, questions about who can drive them, funding and more. But the Catholic Social Services representatives hope that a new plan will iron out some of those wrinkles and make more transportation available to area residents who don’t have their own ways to get to work or appointments.
“The key is organizing collaboration,” Sell said.
Catholic Social Services is not a transportation provider, so it is well-placed to manage that joint effort.
“We can be an unbiased seat at the table,” Caserta said.
“When (all the stakeholders) are involved, we have a louder voice,” Sell added.
The biggest challenge planners will face is the varying regulations, policies and guidelines that individual agencies have to follow. A goal will be to put all of them under one policy, a move that could require statehouse involvement. Caserta intends to collect existing regulations from planning participants and then craft a streamlined proposal with which to move forward.
“I honestly believe everyone in Shelby County has a common goal: improving transportation options for everyone in Shelby County,” Caserta said.
Because Catholic Social Services serves Darke and Champaign counties in addition to Shelby County, Caserta is spearheading transportation planning efforts in those counties, too. She is a liaison to her counterparts in Miami, Preble and Logan counties, where the agency also does senior services.
The local plan will provide information to local, regional, state and federal decision makers.
“We’ll have the data to present,” Sell said. “Hopefully, that changes things.”
For information or to volunteer for a focus group, call 937-575-7115 or email MCaserta@cssmv-sidney.org.