When Metro Transit officials cut back public bus service to the west metro community of Mound in 2010, it didn’t sit well with Mike Skinner.
Skinner, who is legally blind, uses public transportation extensively and felt that others would also be inconvenienced — or worse — by the elimination of weekend bus service and the reduction in downtown runs during the week.
“We’re pretty much stranded out here on the weekends,” Skinner said.
That’s not the only problem, he said. It can take up to two hours using transfers to take public transportation from Mound to the nearest hospital in Waconia, only 12 miles away.
To help those in need, Skinner and several community leaders created WeCAB —www.wecab.org —a grass-roots ride system that pairs riders with volunteer drivers in five adjoining west metro communities.
The system has 42 drivers and 217 riders, and in its first 21 months, it logged nearly 2,700 rides and more than 28,000 miles.
“We imagined it might be exclusively senior citizens,” said Pam Myers, retired school superintendent and WeCAB board member. “We were wrong.”
All kinds of users
The ride system has helped people looking for jobs who don’t have a car, seniors no longer able to drive, single moms who need to drop off a child or visit a food shelf, and people who need daily chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
WeCAB provides rides when public transportation is not available or too complicated, said part-time coordinator LuAnn Fransen. Riders must live in the service area of Mound, Spring Park, Navarre, Minnetrista, St. Bonifacius or Maple Plain.
They pay $2.50 for a one-way trip to banks, grocery stores, hairdressers, churches, the senior center, or any number of other local businesses, including the park and ride in Mound that connects with buses for more-distant destinations.
Fransen said one woman who takes the bus during the week to a job at a McDonald’s in Wayzata gets a WeCAB ride there and back on Saturdays and Sundays because there’s no weekend bus service.
Riders must be registered. Drivers receive training, and their backgrounds are checked. The system uses a computer program that allows riders to request rides by 4 p.m. for the next day, and drivers to accept them, based on availability.
“Volunteers like episodic opportunities to serve,” said Fransen. “They can pick and choose which time and day they want to drive.”
Slowing down, needing help
Cathy Bailey drives two or three times a week. Recently she picked up retired teacher Jerry Borseth from his home in Mound and drove him 14 miles to a medical appointment at Lakeview Clinic in Waconia.
As she waited for him to finish with a doctor, Bailey said she loves the volunteer work because the riders are so appreciative.
She directed the Gillespie Senior Center in Mound before retiring, so Bailey said she knows many of her riders, but she also meets lots of new people.
“The need for transportation has always been there, and it’s probably going to get more intense as time goes on with more people retiring,” she said.
When Borseth emerged into the lobby, Bailey rose to offer a steady hand as he shuffled toward her, balancing with a cane.
As Bailey went to retrieve her 2009 red Subaru Forester from the parking lot and maneuver it into the pickup lane in front of the clinic, Borseth said he appreciates the ride service.
“I’m 75 and I’m kind of slowing down,” he said. “I still drive, but my neurologist said my reflexes are slowing down and he said to stay out of heavy traffic.”
Borseth said his son, who has a full-time job, normally takes him grocery shopping and on other errands, but that’s not possible for medical appointments in the middle of the day.
Myers, who also is a volunteer dispatcher and driver, said the hardest months are February and March, because some drivers go south for the winter and haven’t returned yet. But she said WeCAB is always looking for more drivers, and the volunteer experience is “a hoot.”
“For people who live alone, you’re their social life,” Myers said. “I have people who start talking before they get in the car and talk all the way to their hair appointment.”
The ride not taken
Those connections can occasionally lead to sadness, Bailey said.
Earlier this month when a driver arrived at a home to pick up someone, the rider didn’t come to the door. The driver looked in the window, and saw the man lying on the couch, where he had died the night before.
“We all know this is going to happen one day, but it’s still really hard,” Bailey said.
WeCAB coordinator Fransen said the system doesn’t pay for itself. Drivers don’t handle money, she said, and riders are asked for donations once a month by mail on a pay-what-you-can basis, which usually generates about half of the suggested $5 round trip.
Drivers can request mileage reimbursement for gas, she said, but few do so.
Mound City Manager Kandis Hanson, also a WeCAB board member, said the organization received a start-up donation of $20,000 from Ridgeview Medical Center to purchase the ride scheduling software, pay for a phone line and print some brochures.
It received additional support from Ridgeview this year, and will soon launch a sponsorship drive to seek donations from some of the local groceries and other businesses that benefit from having customers brought to their doorsteps.
Another source of revenue may be selling the program to other communities.
“We’ve had neighbor cities inquire if we could provide service to them,” Hanson said. “What we prefer is to help them replicate the program within their own jurisdiction.”
Hanson said it’s heartwarming to see how eager volunteers are to help others in their community, and inspiring to see how it helps those who might otherwise become shut-ins.
“When people can get to church, when they can get to businesses, then they’re active participants in the community,” Hanson said.
“They’re no longer on the sidelines.”