New or improved transit programs for seniors and the disabled throughout Stanislaus County are at least 15 months away, according to transportation officials.
Advocates and potential riders pressed to speed up the process Thursday when they met with transit officials, but seemed mostly satisfied with a promise to seek previously untapped state and federal transportation money.
"I'm really hopeful and pleased," said Mickey Peabody, chairwoman of the Commission on Aging. She has led a contingent of increasingly vocal seniors since news broke that a road tax heading for the November ballot earmarks no money for senior and disabled transit.
Tom Truax, executive director of the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults, was active in Thursday's discussion.
Transportation officials last week tried to pacify the seniors by naming several potential state and federal sources. Thursday, they further outlined possibilities, though the most likely would not produce results sooner than July 2009.
A state transit fund already makes available $15 million per year for operators throughout Stanislaus County, including city buses and dial-a-ride services in Modesto, Turlock, Ceres, Riverbank, Oakdale, Waterford and some unincorporated towns.
Of that, the operators use $12 million. Officials for years have declared no further transit needs and used the excess -- $3 million this year -- to fill cracks and fix potholes.
That $3 million could help transport more senior and disabled riders, but first would require a $125,000 needs assessment, county transit manager Brad Christian said. He said he expects to finish preparing pre-study documents by July, when money for the report will become available, and a consulting firm could begin the study in the fall.
If all goes as planned, the study could be used to bring the "extra" $3 million per year back into transit service sometime during the year following July 1, 2009.
"We feel an urgency that maybe you don't," Peabody said. She and many others relented after Christian said, "I promise you, I will move as quickly as I can on this."
Other officials, including County Supervisors Dick Monteith and Jeff Grover, made similar pledges.
Peabody questioned why no one mentioned the slice of transit money regularly redirected to road repair when community leaders agreed to bless senior and disabled transit with 2.5 percent of Measure K money before that effort failed in 2006. Peabody had helped drum up senior support for the measure.
"Neither of us realized the funding intended for this kind of transit was being routed back to roads," said Grover, a supervisor for more than five years. "That information we gleaned by being deeper involved in the system. That's the underlying truth of the matter."
Grover later added: "This entire thing of transportation has so many different levels and permutations, it's mind-numbing."
Monteith said: "I don't want to waste my time on that one. Mistakes have been made. Let's go correct it and get it done."
At least three other federal transportation funds, with application deadlines approaching fast, could be tapped as well, officials said.
Grover created a stir Thursday by calling for "a professional evaluation of dial-a-ride." Some senior advocates said riders have waited long periods in rain and hot temperatures. Grover said county staff was unable to reach an operator to secure a ride for a senior who attended last week's Stanislaus Council of Governments meeting.
"The systems we have in place need to be tuned up," Grover said. "When we come out of this whole deal, we want it working as good as it can."
Christian said his office turns away an average of three seniors per month because the service is too busy, among thousands of dial-a-ride customers, and receives only two complaints. Many in Thursday's audience openly scoffed.
Jill Klajic said most ignored seniors fade away instead of complaining.
"Seniors are afraid of change," said Isabel Gonzalez, property manager with Ralston Tower retirement community. "They need people to help and hold their hand."
Grover scheduled a June 5 meeting to provide updates on the state needs assessment and federal transit applications.
Christian called for people interested in serving on com- mittees overseeing the needs assessment to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Modesto transit manager Fred Cavanah said he will schedule a meeting of people with input on customer service provided by Modesto's dial-a-ride. He can be reached at 577-5298.