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Users hoping van trial run stays

It's 8:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. David Bearden hangs up the orange telephone at his home.

He maneuvers his legs between the long cord so that he doesn't trip. Cordless phones don't work for him because he usually ends up misplacing the phone.

The front door is open so he can hear Trans-Hernando Para-Transit, the transportation disadvantaged van, pull up in the driveway.

He and neighbor Holly Schneider have scheduled a 10 a.m. departure. As required, they called by noon the day before. And since the service operates in two-hour windows from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., they have to be ready by 8 just in case.

For their day's shopping trip to the Brooksville Wal-Mart and Publix, they must also make sure to be finished by 1:30 p.m., so the driver can bring them home by the 2 p.m. service cutoff.

The van always drops them off at the Brooksville City Hall bus stop, where they catch buses to the parts of town they can get to.

On these shopping days, they also carry large bookbags to stuff wares inside. Bearden's sits by the front door.

Inside is his wallet, address book and trusty, antique magnifying glass. Beside the bag is Isaac, his patient German shepherd Seeing Eye dog.

It used to be they could only count on leaving their homes on Fridays. No worrying about asking for rides from family and friends. No uncomfortable replies. Just a definite date.

But now, thanks to a few years of pushing, they've finally gotten the service to run an extra day, Tuesday. But only until March 28. The service extends to Ridge Manor and the Hill 'n Dale areas.

At the end of the trial run, transportation officials will evaluate ridership to see if it's worth keeping the extra day each week.

Eligible riders include the elderly, Medicaid clients, people who are physically or mentally challenged, and low-income residents. Van rides cost $5 each way, but funding assistance is available.

To people like Schneider and Bearden, who rely on the service for some semblance of an independent life, the TD van is invaluable.

The constant asking of rides mentioned before? It gets old for everyone.

"We've been fighting for the last five years," said Bearden, 48. "This 90-day trial period is great. But we have to come up with the ridership."

No one knows the magic number.

Local transportation disadvantaged board officials have asked for a study of the numbers, said Mary Stahl, spokeswoman for the county bus service. She said they would make their decision based on what they see.

"We saw a little bit of improvement (since the extra service day began), but there's not anything we want to go ahead and report," she said.

The extra day has been advertised on TV, radio and in newspapers, she said. Fliers also have been passed out.

But it's still not enough, Schneider said.

"We know that there are elderly and other disabled people who need this service but don't know it exists," she said.

It's usually only she and Bearden who end up using the van, Schneider said. In the coming weeks, they plan to hoof it, and get those fliers around to neighbors themselves.

They say they don't want the extra day of service to disappear.

Ninety days is not enough time to give people a chance to know the service is out there, said Rose Rocco, chairwoman of the National Federation of the Blind for Hernando and Eastern Pasco counties.

She helps Bearden read and study county transportation disadvantaged board information, which he was recently appointed to as a citizen's adviser.

"There are lots of shortcomings, and I know Dennis Dix (county transportation coordinator) has been trying different avenues to improve it," Rocco said. "It's hard, especially without the population density where David and Holly live."

But as the county population grows, planners will have to think of ways to meet the needs of even more disabled people.

"Right now they're not," she said.

Steve Diez, a transportation planner in the County Planning Office, admitted that the service isn't very convenient. But it's better than nothing.

"If I wanted to run out to the store, I could," he said. "But for these people, it's a system of last resort. They can't drive themselves and don't have anyone to drive them. That's what transportation disadvantaged means."

Schneider, 50, used to have a good-paying job in the Hernando circuit clerk's office. After 19 years, she was forced to quit two years ago when her eyesight waned.

Like Bearden, she has a degenerative eye disease. He sees with the 26 percent of vision left in his right eye. Though she has more sight left, it's not much better.

"For me, this is one of the only ways for me to get out," she said.

Her husband commutes to work, so he's not around during the day. She relies on friends a lot. But they can't always get her to the places she needs to be.

To be honest, neither can the TD van, she said. Because of the time restrictions, she can't always get to doctor's appointments. And even if she can, there's no guarantee she'll be there on time.

Once she had a 9:30 a.m. appointment. She was told she might make it there by 10 a.m.

Sometimes she and Bearden end up walking along State Road 50 to get to places. They're used to the big trucks zooming by. Even when they take the bus, they have no choice but to walk between spread-out shopping centers designed for people in cars.

But Isaac does a good job of leading the way. And Schneider has gotten better with her guiding stick.

At 8:40 a.m., the TD van arrives. Schneider, dressed in lavender for the day, comes to knock at Bearden's door. She stands with her stick in hand.

"Are you ready?" she asks.

The day promises errand-running and lunch between friends.

"Yep," Bearden replies. He swings his backpack over his shoulder, and tells Isaac to move. Then he shuts the front door behind him.

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@spttmes.com or (352) 848-1432.

FOR INFORMATION

Anyone wanting more information about the Trans-Hernando Para-Transit door-to-door service may call 799-1510.

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