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Grant to aid special transport

Pinellas County will receive a $281,624 state grant to provide more transportation to the elderly, disabled and others who have difficulty using regular buses. But the money won't provide quick relief for people such as Kris Madsen of Palm Harbor, who has been fighting for months for a discounted taxi service for the blind and visually impaired.

"It doesn't do a thing," Madsen said, frustration in her voice.

What Madsen set out to accomplish several months ago has fallen by the wayside. She tried to persuade county officials to investigate a discount taxi service for the blind, modeled on similar services operating in Miami, Orlando and other cities. Those programs use federal, state and local money to reimburse taxi companies that offer rides to the blind.

Ned Baier, a planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), says he understands Madsen's frustration, but there just isn't enough money to go around to provide rides for everyone at the times they are needed.

No federal money is available for such a taxi program, Baier said, because such a program no longer is a priority for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which finances them.

Cities using federal dollars for such services probably received their original financing in past years, he said.

What's currently available just isn't enough, Madsen said. "I'm visually impaired. In order for me to get a bus, I have to walk a mile down Alderman Road, cross U.S. 19 and, if you please, flag a bus as it approaches," she said. "I can see it when it's practically on top of me, and I'm sure that's going to make the driver happy."

Madsen said her only other choice is a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) program that requires appointments made days in advance, and that can take hours of traveling time.

Madsen says estimates show Pinellas County has 30,000 residents who fall into that category. Transportation is one of their toughest problems.

At a recent luncheon of the Upper Pinellas Chapter of the Blind, Madsen said she mentioned the transportation issue and got an overwhelming response.

"They all said this is what they desperately need," she said. "A woman called me yesterday who can't drive anymore. She doesn't know what to do, where to go or anything else. There are probably hundreds of people like her out there, and they are very lonely, lonely people."

Baier said the new grant money is likely to help, but major improvements to the county's system will take time. The money will be used to provide more transportation through agencies already providing the service, such as Neighborly Senior Services and PSTA.

In addition, new state laws give the MPO more power to coordinate transportation services for the elderly, blind, handicapped, and others with special transportation needs. New members have been added to a committee that evaluates those needs, and planners are working to identify unmet needs in Pinellas County.

County officials are confident the planning efforts, along with continued state financing, will lead to a greatly improved system, Baier said.

But for Madsen, the bureaucracy isn't moving fast enough. So she's working to organize people with transportation problems to lobby for better services.

"I figured that's the only way to do it," she said. "You can't work alone."