BIG STONE GAP — Thirty-eight years in the past, Mountain Empire Older Residents was attempting to assist senior residents get to the group’s feeding and socialization packages.
Beginning with a couple of white vans and a mixture of volunteer and paid workers, that effort has grown right into a full-sized regional public transit system — Mountain Empire Transit — with service throughout Clever, Lee and Scott counties and the town of Norton.
MET Director Mitch Elliott, Operations Supervisor Will White and Mobility Supervisor Nicky Fleenor oversee the transit group and two new packages — METGo!, a pilot on-demand bus system within the Norton-Clever space; and METLink, a strategy to join Southwest Virginia riders with Kingsport and its Kingsport Space Transit bus service.
“We have been the primary Medicaid-Medicare transport service in Virginia in 1985,” Elliott mentioned of MET’s evolution from supporting senior providers right into a public transit group.
MET’s body-chassis buses have been a well-known sight across the three-county space for years. Transit buses haul seniors to MEOC’s congregate facilities or procuring journeys, shuttle individuals from parking heaps to festivals like Dwelling Craft Days or the Excessive Knob Music Pageant, and supply rides to work, faculty or different locations for individuals of all ages.
MET expanded its service about three years in the past in a pilot program for college kids at The College of Virginia’s Faculty at Clever — Cavalier Connection. Earlier than Cavalier Connection, MET’s rides needed to be scheduled not less than 24 hours prematurely. The school system launched a extra speedy on-demand dispatch service that grew to become common for college kids trying to journey off-campus for procuring, consuming or different providers.
MET fares have been low cost — 75 cents for a one-way journey or $1.50 for a spherical journey — they usually grew to become cheaper when COVID-19 struck in 2020, Elliott mentioned.
Elliott mentioned Cavalier Connection grew to become the prototype for METGo!, which covers an roughly 12-mile loop within the Norton-Clever space.
“We started METGo! within the midst of one of many hardest elements of the pandemic for our space,” mentioned Elliott. “We acquired a grant for fare-free transportation on the time.”
Elliott mentioned the fare-free grant, from the Virginia Division of Rail and Public Transportation gave a lift to METGo! when it began routes on June 28, 2021.
“If we agreed to pay for the fourth 12 months, (DRPT) agreed to assist us for the primary three years,” Elliott mentioned. “The extra passengers that experience our buses, paying or not, improve the federal subsidies that the state will get.”
Elliott mentioned the MET service space is classed as being in power poverty, and lower-income residents are more likely to spend as a lot as 15% of their month-to-month revenue on transportation prices with out accessible public transit.
“It’s onerous to think about a more practical means to assist the low-income and aged individuals we serve than by making our system extra accessible and eliminating 15 p.c of their bills,” mentioned Elliott.
When taking a look at MET’s total ridership, Elliott mentioned, about 61% of riders are 65 or older and 70% have an revenue beneath $15,000. A few third of MET riders use a wheelchair, cane or different assistive gadget, he added, and 47% of MET’s ridership doesn’t have entry to a working automobile.
“We’ve made the dedication to be fare-free for the subsequent 4 years,” Elliott mentioned. “That’s for most people.”
Since July 2021, when day by day experience requests ran between roughly 10 to 55 day by day and METGo! had simply accomplished its first month of operation, day by day experience requests for all of MET climbed to 165 in early December and have run between 175 and 220 in Could and June.
Fleenor mentioned, regardless of the restricted Norton-Clever service space, she receives calls day by day from Appalachia, Large Stone and Coeburn about how you can use METGo!
“We do hope to develop however, for now, that is the world,” mentioned Fleenor.
Elliott mentioned MET hopes to begin an indication grant in December to deliver METGo! to the Large Stone Hole and Pennington Hole areas. Connecting that space with the present Norton-Clever zone might be executed with the METLink system, which makes use of MET’s customary buses to attach counties for rides to Kingsport.
White mentioned a typical week sees 750 to 820 riders weekly simply on the METGo! system. With its first anniversary approaching, he added, METGo! had carried 27,207 riders as much as Wednesday.
“To place that in perspective, our entire system in 2021 transported 32,187 individuals,” Elliott mentioned. “With the inception of METGo!, METLink and fare-free, this 12 months we’ve already transported 73,145 individuals. In days when public transportation has had an enormous drop, we’ve been capable of get well and transcend and it’s due to these three initiatives.”
“It’s a cut price when you think about gasoline costs and going all the way in which to Kingsport,” Fleenor added. “For METLink in our first two months we solely did 40 journeys per 30 days and now we’re averaging upwards of 200-300 journeys.”
As much as June 17, Fleenor mentioned, METLink reached 188 journeys with 210 riders. Whereas the service nonetheless requires not less than 24-hour prior scheduling and is growing a plan to incorporate common shuttle stops, she mentioned riders can nonetheless use it to entry Kingsport’s KATS system and experience its buses to occasions, retail websites and occasions earlier than driving again on METLink.
“I really feel individuals have responded properly to the service,” Fleenor mentioned.
Mitch mentioned the ridership numbers don’t present a human factor to METLink and MET.
“What we see in transportation as of late just isn’t who you transport however how many individuals you place within the seats, and that’s the way you get your funding,” Elliott mentioned. “My worry is that they’ll legislate compassion out of this. We’ve obtained individuals who should get to dialysis appointments and we drive 35 to 40 miles.”
Elliott mentioned METLink has helped individuals go to their kinfolk within the hospitals, typically when these kinfolk could also be dying.
“Individuals might take a look at effectivity in numerous methods,” Elliott mentioned, “however we take a look at effectivity as how many individuals can we grow to be a lifeline to.”
White mentioned a current dialog with DRPT officers and grant recipient Bay Transit within the Peninsula and Japanese Shore space introduced one other factor of MET’s skill to gentle.
“They have been asking us how we have been doing it, how was it exploding,” mentioned White. “You’ve obtained to have the proper individuals in the proper place, and our drivers make this occur. It’s a must to have a champion to do that, they usually’ve pioneered this.”
White mentioned he acquired a name from one rider who credited METGo! driver Shanghai Nickles with motivating her to get on the bus and go to work when she didn’t assume she might.
“Everybody of them has compassion for the individuals who experience,” White mentioned.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Jennifer DeBruhl, appearing DRPT director, mentioned of MET’s efficiency and packages. “Now we have seen (MET and Bay Transit) ridership far exceed our expectations, and their expertise has given us lots to go on as we take a look at rural transit.”
DeBruhl mentioned MET and different rural transit methods are vital as a result of they are going to function “capillaries” to get individuals to city areas and to passenger rail service when it reaches so far as Bristol, Virginia.
“They’re simply as vital as bigger transit methods to provide individuals entry to jobs, schooling and well being care entry,” mentioned DeBruhl.
Fleenor mentioned drivers throughout the MET system present the identical concern for his or her riders, usually advocating for riders who might have medical issues and serving to them if they’ve one thing like low blood sugar throughout a visit.
“That’s what we inform our drivers, if they’ll make their connection, to make use of their discretion,” mentioned Fleenor. “It reveals they go above and past.”
“An surprising perk of METLink, particularly, is socialization,” Fleenor mentioned. “You get on there with individuals they usually simply chat. They don’t know one another however they chat on the way in which over and get to speak on the way in which again.”
With a long-term dialogue amongst Southwest Virginia officers, residents and companies about bringing passenger rail to Bristol, Elliott mentioned MET and different rural transit organizations within the area have a long-term position in linking rural areas to the Tri-Cities.
Fleenor mentioned MET officers have began discussions on how METLink can discover methods to attach with transit methods within the Bristols, Kingsport and Johnson Metropolis and the state’s Virginia Breeze bus system from Southwest Virginia to Washington, D.C.
“We’ve at all times been open to work with anyone in any means,” Elliott mentioned. “We’re going to wish one another on this battle.”