NEORide pursues out-of-county shuttle service for people with disabilities

February 20, 2023

Natalie Smallwood has been unable to drive the past 10 years since she had a stroke in Florida and later moved back to Stark County.

So to get around to medical appointments, shopping trips and Bible study sessions, the 59-year-old Canton woman has relied on the curb-to-curb ProLine paratransit service provided by her former employer, the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. The cost for riders is $2.25 per ride.

But when researchers invited her to take part in clinical trials in stroke research in Cuyahoga and Summit counties, she had to decline. ProLine, which serves passengers with disabilities, doesn’t provide service outside of Stark County.

However, SARTA says a recent $1.25 million federal grant will make out-of-county paratransit services possible by around 2026. The transit agency has joined a cooperative with transit agencies in other counties that says it’s lined up more than $6 million in grants to fund the development of a software platform that would pool resources so they can all provide regional service that crosses county lines.

For example, a woman with disabilities unable to drive who lives in Massillon might be able to get a paratransit shuttle ride to visit her mother in Wooster in Wayne County and her aunt in Lisbon in Columbiana County. Another passenger might be able to get a ride from Plain Township in Stark County to a doctor’s appointment in Akron in Summit County.

Smallwood, who said she still struggles with motor functions on the right side of her body, said out-of-county paratransit service would allow her to shop and dine outside Stark County.

“I would love something like that,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want to rely on her family to get around. “A lot of times I don’t like to ask them because I want to be independent. … That’s what I like about ProLine, so I don’t have to be dependent on family members.”

NEORide receives $1.25 million grant for project

NEORide, a cooperative made up of transit agencies including SARTA, recently announced that NEORide had gotten a $1.25 million federal grant for its EZConnect project with the help of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown. Congress authorized the appropriation in its omnibus budget bill approved in late December.

The project involves deploying software to consolidate the reservations, scheduling and dispatching of shuttle drivers for at least six public transit agencies, including SARTA, for paratransit service. Riders could eventually book rides across county lines with one app.

The six initial transit agencies collaborating on launching EZConnect are SARTA, the Western Reserve Transit Authority in Mahoning County, Wayne-Medina Community Action, CAA of Columbiana County, Trumbull County Transit, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in Hamilton County and the Butler County Regional Transit Authority. Transit officials say they hope more agencies like Summit County’s Akron Metro RTA and Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority eventually join the cooperative.

SARTA CEO Kirt Conrad said that in the initial phase, riders would be limited to transit agencies participating in EZConnect that are in Northeast Ohio. But he suggested it could be possible later on to work out transfers to other transit agencies to allow for longer journeys.

Transit officials also plan to set up two call centers staffed by people who would accept calls requesting paratransit service throughout the area served by EZConnect. One center, staffed by 25 to 30 dispatchers, would take up the entire second floor of SARTA’s Gateway headquarters in Canton, said Conrad. The other center would be at the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority in Cincinnati.

NEORide Director Katherine Conrad, who is married to Kirt Conrad, said transit agencies that have signed onto EZConnect have not yet decided how much it would charge riders with disabilities for rides across county lines, how it would staff the call centers and the funding mechanism. Katherine Conrad said it’s possible there could be a regional pass with a fee.

NEORide is a cooperative that covers 23 transit agencies in five states: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas. Three Northeast Ohio transit agencies, SARTA, Akron Metro and Portage Area Regional Transit Authority, founded NEORide in 2014 to collaborate and pool resources for regional transit technology projects.

“Ohioans needs to get to doctor’s appointments, go to the grocery store, and get to work,” Brown said. “This investment will help them do that. … These federal funds will help NEORide and Ohio transit agencies provide better service for riders across Ohio.”

Kirt Conrad: ‘We know the demand is there. We just can’t fulfill it.’

Kirt Conrad said the federal grant “goes a long way towards our goal for having intercounty connectivity for transportation purposes. This is something we’ve been working on for a long time.”

He said a SARTA paratransit rider could call a phone number or use a smartphone app to book a ride from Canton to Akron General Medical Center in Akron. The EZConnect software could assign a SARTA bus to take the passenger up to Akron, and arrange for an Akron Metro RTA shuttle to take the rider back to Canton, assuming Akron Metro has joined EZConnect.

The SARTA chief said on the occasional out-of-county trips SARTA has done as part of a contract for Stark County Department of Jobs and Family Services more than five years ago, the vehicle often had to wait for hours before the rider was ready to return to Stark County. During that time, it couldn’t provide other rides in Stark County.

EZConnect offers the promise of a more efficient use of all member transit agency vehicles and staff short of an outright consolidation of agencies.

Kirt Conrad compared it to how Uber matches vehicles and riders.

Currently, SARTA’s ProLine services uses software so riders can book service in 30-minute windows but no less than one business day in advance. Conrad envisions a day when riders with disabilities will be able to use an app like with Uber or Lyft to book rides minutes before the ride but without the higher costs.

The SARTA executive director said each month his agency delivers about 5,000 to 6,000 fixed-route bus trips and roughly 13,000 paratransit shuttle trips.

He said customers with disabilities in Stark County are often contacting SARTA and requesting trips out of the county, especially for medical appointments in Summit and Cuyahoga counties. One even asked for a ride to Cincinnati.

“We know the demand is there. We just can’t fulfill it,” he said.

Kerstin Sjoberg, the executive director of Disability Rights Ohio said, “When you rely on (paratransit services) for visiting family, going to medical appointments, having that system that will break down that geographical barrier … could make a very meaningful and positive impact on access to services and just being able to live your life. … We generally don’t limit our lives just to the county we live in. So people with disabilities shouldn’t have to do that either.”

Denise Dessecker, the president of the Philomatheon Society of the Blind in Canton, said out-of-county paratransit service would allow people with visual impairments to travel to the Cleveland Sight Center in Cleveland to try using the sight-adaptive equipment there.

“Sometimes they just don’t do it (go to the Cleveland Sight Center) because they don’t have a way to get there,” she said.

Matt Reed, a spokesman for Direction Home Akron Canton Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities in Green, said many senior clients who are no longer able to drive often ask about transportation options. But options are often limited, especially if seniors want to travel across county lines. 

“I’m really intrigued by this concept,” he said about EZConnect. “A lot of times we see a lot of older adults who live in one county and their preferred medical provider is in another county.”

NEORides’ EZConnect nabs other federal grants

Brown’s office and Katherine Conrad said NEORides’ EZConnect project has also gotten a $1.49 million federal Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Development grant; a $338,600 Enhanced Mobility Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation; and a grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation.

“We’re definitely in a place where we can fund the initial development as well as operations of the first several years,” she said, adding that NEORide has a software development contract with Via Transportation that could cost about $2 million. “I think we have most of the pieces in place and now we have the funding.”

Katherine Conrad: Rural counties need EZConnect

Katherine Conrad said that without an initiative like EZConnect, rural counties would not have the resources to provide extensive paratransit services or fixed-route bus services to their residents, much less transport people outside the county. She said in some counties, paratransit organizers still plan all the trips with pen and paper and don’t even have dispatchers to contact drivers to re-route them.

Kirt Conrad said transit officials hope that savings from greater efficiency would eventually cover the long-term operating costs of EZConnect, which might even expand to fixed-route service to take more riders across county lines.

“The hope is once we transition to this, the efficiencies would be able to fund it,” he said. “The biggest thing is just getting the initial platform built. Once you have that done, it’s pretty scalable. It’s just adding additional licenses and servers.”

Reach Robert at [email protected]. Twitter: @rwangREP.

NEORide to offer out-of-county service for people with disabilities (