Sometimes seen as an overlooked aspect of poverty, lack of reliable and affordable transportation often is a major reason people - especially older adults – don’t get the health care, food and other basics they need.

It can lead to social isolation, which is detrimental to physical and psychological well-being.

Without reasonable transportation options, people who otherwise are capable and want to work often can’t get the education and job skills they need to find and keep jobs.

These problems are especially pronounced in a sprawling, rural county like Wilkes, where about 7% of all households don’t have vehicles and about 10-20% of households in some Census tracts don’t have them.

There are many instances of a single vehicle not being enough to get everyone in a household where they need to be and on time for jobs, medical appointments and other obligations – and then the vehicle breaks down or there isn’t enough money to cover food, medicine, housing plus gas.

An elderly woman raising her grandchildren, which is common, has a car, but at times experiences hunger because she can’t afford the gas to drive from her home in a far end of Wilkes to one of the food pantries in the Wilkesboros. Her only option through Wilkes Transportation Authority, the county’s primary public transit, is a demand response trip costing at least $10 one way, based on where she lives. If she lived as far away as Thurmond or far southwestern Wilkes, the one-way fare would be around $23. For someone in Moravian Falls or Millers Creek, it would be $6 to $8 one-way.

WTA demand response transportation must be made at least 24 hours in advance, which rules out this option if a car breaks down or something else unexpected occurs.

WTA has one fixed route within the Wilkesboros, but it’s too time consuming for some people depending on where they start. For example, a woman enrolled in a job training program at Wilkes Community College has no car for the 2½ miles to WCC. The fixed WTA route near where she lives is an option, but it runs in the opposite direction so it takes her almost an hour to reach WCC using WTA. Also, it only operates three days a week.

WTA raised its rates recently after experiencing its own financial crises due largely to mismanagement. A woman needing a job and her son walked six miles each way between their home and the Goodwill Career Connections on U.S. 421 in Wilkesboro for training since she couldn’t afford WTA rates.

WTA faces the likelihood of being paid less for hauling clients of the Wilkes Department of Social Services and other agencies due to Medicaid reform, approved by the state legislature, as soon as February. This accounts for most of WTA’s clients.

Keith Elmore, chairman of the county commissioners, justifiably brought up the possibility of upping county government’s budgeted appropriation to WTA last week, but this may only be enough to make up for what is lost through Medicaid reform. WTA needs fixed routes with affordable rates well out into the county, possibly to a different area of Wilkes each day of the week.

County government included $20,000 for WTA in the 2018-19 budget (the county’s first budgeted allocation to WTA in many years) and $50,000 this year. County government allocations for public transportation in adjoining counties this year include Surry, $150,000; Ashe, $146,000; Watauga, $67,495; and Yadkin, $75,804.

Communication is needed with public transits in adjoining counties about the possibility of them providing transportation in parts of Wilkes near their current service areas if they can do so at more affordable rates.

Ride-sharing options in Wilkes County should be explored.

In March, a partnership consisting of WCC, High Country Workforce Development Board and other public entities was awarded a $98,013 governor’s transportation grant to study limitations of public transportation services in Wilkes. Paula Eller, project coordinator, is working closely with AECOM, the consulting firm hired by the High-Country Partnership groups. AECOM is a technical services company providing consulting and other support to the transportation and other industries.  The initiative includes conducting community, WCC student, employer and employee surveys.

The survey is online at https://forms.gle/ZrsmpEAiMJMSxzbC7. Paper copies of the survey can be filled out at the Wilkes County Public Library, NCWorks Career Center, Goodwill Family Resource Center, Wilkes County Health Department, Wilkes County Department of Social Services or the Wilkes County Diabetes and Nutrition Center.

Eller said that after data is collected and analyzed, a report will be submitted to a committee established by the governor and could result in additional funding for implementation.

Input is also being sought from WTA, Wilkes Economic Development Corp. and WCC, among others. Local employers signed letters of support for the grant.

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