By MARIAN GALBREATH
While a little-known service is growing substantially in popularity, its federal funding may be reduced or taken away if certain lawmakers get their way in Congress.
Unbeknownst to many, the Coffee County Rural Public Transportation service is available to all county residents for either free or reduced-rate transportation, both inside and outside the county, for destinations such as medical trips, social service visits, shopping, personal business, senior citizen’s center, and work.
The system is one of 13 county-operated rural public transport systems supported by state and federal funding and coordinated through the South Central Tennessee Development District (SCTDD) headquartered in Columbia.
While Coffee County’s buses and vans are dispatched from the Tullahoma Senior Citizens Center at 410 N. Collins St., the service is by no means exclusive to seniors, the disabled or low-income residents.
According to Vickie Fulmer, executive director of Coffee County Senior Citizens Inc., any and all county residents can take advantage of the system’s low fares and door-to-door transportation service with advance reservations.
“The charge is only $1 per stop inside the city limits and $2.50 per stop outside the city limits,” Fulmer said.
“We also take people outside the county on certain days of the month, but you need to make reservations for those trips well in advance.”
More like an affordable shuttle service than a bus or taxi, the vans pick up riders on an as-needed basis from the home or other pre-arranged location and offer a far more personal level of service than a typical bus system.
Samford Potts, director of transportation for SCTDD since 1980, said that in all 13 counties served by rural public transit, drivers offer a personal touch, learning riders’ schedules and helping them in and out of the vans as needed.
“Unlike an urban transit service, we get to know our passengers and they get to know our drivers,” Potts said.
“We try to learn the needs of our customers and take care of them as best we can while getting them where they need to go.”
Dan Jernigan, director of transportation for the Coffee County system, said that with the help of Moore County’s system, he is currently running 150 trips per day in Coffee County and expects continued growth in ridership as gas prices continue to rise.
“We place a higher priority on medical trips than we do for getting people to work or personal shopping, of course, but if we can get you there, we will,” Jernigan said.
“We do a lot of dialysis trips in Tullahoma and Manchester, and in some cases, we have taken people to the emergency room who otherwise could not afford an ambulance.”
He added that in some cases, the rider’s insurance provider will pay their fare for a covered medical trip, but to call your insurance company first and find out.
The system also takes small groups of passengers to other cities and counties for medical appointments only.
For example, round-trip service from Tullahoma to Murfreesboro is available on the first Tuesday of each month for $20, to Nashville on the second Tuesday for $30, to Shelbyville on the third Tuesday for $12, and to Winchester and McMinnville on the fourth Tuesday for $12.
Riders are urged to schedule their out-of-county medical appointments early on the designated Tuesday morning so that drivers can stay in the area and take all riders back together around 1 or 2 p.m.
By all accounts, demand for the service has increased dramatically in recent years throughout the district.
Kathy Ferrell, a driver with Coffee County’s service for about three and a half years, said the demand has seemingly quadrupled over that period.
“You used to be able to get a ride easily with only 24 hours’ notice, but now it’s getting harder,” Ferrell said. “With the out-of-county medical appointments, it’s best to allow a few weeks’ notice, but we try to take care of everyone as best we can and get them to wherever they need to go.”
Potts said that while patronage has increased 24 percent in the last year alone across the district as a whole, lawmakers in Congress are threatening to terminate its federal funding from the Highway Trust Fund.
“In the past, the funding has been renewed every five years or so with slight increases each year,” Potts said, “but now there are a lot of Congress members against any kind of earmarks.
“The deadline is coming up March 31 to determine next year’s budget appropriation, but there is currently a stalemate in the House over how much funding will be approved.”
He added that in the nine counties represented by U.S. House Rep. Scott DesJarlais, over 9,000 passengers used rural transportation during 2011 alone for a total of 3.2 million miles.
“That’s a lot of gasoline, too, when you’re having to drive several miles out into the counties to pick up and drop off riders.
“We’ve written our congressmen and we hope they will at least maintain the current levels of funding,” he said.
“We urge riders to do the same if they’re interested in keeping it going.”
For reservations and other information on rural public transportation in Coffee County call 931-455-1787.
Marian Galbraith can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org