By Stephen Smoot
When the general public thinks of buses and local public transportation, it generally thinks only of a set schedule of routes designed to get masses of people from point A to point B. Most also think that ridership mostly comes from those trying to get to and from work or shopping.
Over the past two decades, however, Potomac Valley Transit Authority has stepped in and stepped up to provide other kinds of transport services modern riders need.
PVTA currently covers Pendleton, Grant, Hampshire, Mineral, and Hardy counties. As communications director Suzanne Park said, “Initially for Pendleton County, our services were a whole lot different. We had work routes to Hanover Shoe. It’s where the DHHR office is now. That was huge.”
Routes also served those looking for shopping and recreation. Park explained, “Before COVID, we ran day trips to Harrisonburg [Virginia], the mall, and Moorefield.” Ridership to Harrisonburg, Virginia, in particular fell below what PVTA needed to maintain the route. Doug Pixler, executive director of PVTA, said, “After COVID, we tried to get them going again, but we don’t have people who want to go.”
He added, “We’d love to get a route started back to Harrisonburg [Virginia].”
In recent months, PVTA has expanded service in Pendleton County by adding a Friday route running from Franklin through Upper Tract to Petersburg, then Moorefield. The bus stops at five stops in Franklin, Kiles Grocery in Upper Tract, three stops in Petersburg and three stops in Moorefield. Each boarding costs one dollar and seniors 62 and over ride at a 50% discount.
Much of the focus in recent years has also gone to providing services for riders who need extra assistance. The SOAR program, for instance, supports getting those committed to drug recovery to their placements, including appointments for treatment. Park said, “We received a federal grant to provide transportation services for people in recovery from addiction.” Funds to support the program go through West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. Regionally, PVTA works “hand in hand” with Potomac Highlands Guild, Recovery Care in Keyser and other similar organizations dealing with drug addiction and mental health.
As Park describes, “we also take people who have decided that they want to go into a detox or recovery center. Participants must go through an intake process, such as at an emergency room, then commit themselves to a program. It could be as close as Winchester, or as far away as Weirton, Huntington, or even Ohio. We literally take them where we can find a bed.”
Surveys indicate that transportation serves as the biggest barrier preventing addicts from seeking help. Park said the clients include addicts just out of prison. “They have no identification, no drivers’ license, no ways to get to where they need to go, but they made the decision to get better.”
Park stated that “The SOAR program is one of the best partnerships that we have to get these people to where they need to go. We take some people every week. We take some people every month. It just depends on what their needs are.”
PVTA has also expanded services for seniors who need extra help, sometimes backfilling when county senior and family services centers resources get stretched to their limits. “We work closely with senior and family services in Pendleton County,” says Pixler. He adds that, “We do various things when they need something.” In some areas, senior centers lack drivers and PVTA has stepped in to help. Their drivers have also assisted with delivering meals to seniors.
Other services include non-emergency medical transportation. Many have mistakenly called ambulances for these services that PVTA already provides. Pixler says, “We’re in that area all the time, every day, not just Franklin, but all over Pendleton County.” All on Medicaid can access this service, but only certain Medicare plans will cover it, though options continue to expand.
Park described that “there’s multiple things that we do here.” She gave an example of one senior client who lived in a remote area and needed transport to doctor appointments, saying “when she needs an appointment, we pick her up and we get her there.”
Donnie Wratchford, assistant general manager who has 39 years of service, said “We’d like to do more for the seniors in Pendleton County, but it just doesn’t take off. There’s a lot of seniors in the area.”
A program not available at the time in Pendleton County is Ready Ride. This program works similarly to a taxi service in that it provides customized local travel to those who qualify. Because of limited resources, such as drivers, fuel costs, and vehicles, PVTA can only offer it in areas of high usage. Keyser, for example, averages 2,500 trips per year. When active in Franklin, the average in town was closer to 30.
Support for the community does not end at transport. The PVTA garage will provide vehicle maintenance services for local government for a nominal fee.
The addition of vital services has stretched the resources of PVTA. Pixler admits, “we are overwhelmed.” Both the scattered population and physical geography add to the challenges. The Potomac Highlands has a total population similar to Parkersburg scattered across an area the size of Puerto Rico. Park says that “we cannot get anywhere quick. If we pick up someone in Franklin for a doctor’s appointment in Romney, that’s an all-day trip.” She went on to say that “it’s not like we can stop and pick up others on a specific trip.”
Ridership continues to increase. Pixler said that ridership has always been in the 90 to low 100,000s, but “last year it was 121,000. This past year, we are at 150,000. That’s amazing for small rural service like this.” Since costs must remain low to serve targeted communities, the increase in ridership has not helped as much as one might think to address the limits on resources faced by PVTA, particularly as other costs, such as fuel and bus parts, have gone up considerably.
Another challenge lies in communicating new services or when weather affects transportation schedules. Park said that PVTA relies heavily on social media outlets such as Eye On Franklin “and other great sites. We’re always looking for places to share our information.” She added that Bruce Minor, PVTA board member, suggested that parts of the potential market “might not know how to ride a bus.” Older riders may not know the full breadth of services, while younger people never became familiar with the process of learning where to meet a bus and how to plan a trip around route schedules.
Learning how to use the services could open opportunities in the entire region for those facing steep gas prices. Park suggested that those needing transportation for any reason that have not used PVTA call the office and discuss their needs.
Going forward, PVTA seeks to get more creative with their offerings. Park explained that discussions with senior and family services officials are currently underway to plan “shoppers’ trips” to destinations such as Clarksburg. They would just need eight to 12 participants to “make a day of it.”