TARPON SPRINGS — Mayor Chris Alahouzos has always considered himself to be an advocate for seniors. In addition to delivering Meals on Wheels to area seniors for several years, Alahouzos last fall helped establish a Senior Information Center at the Tarpon Springs library.
Prior to the center's launch, the mayor petitioned Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller to provide information on services for the library center when he appeared before the City Commission in August. At the time, Alahouzos requested an update on a pilot program that would provide critical transportation trips via Uber and other ride-sharing companies for free or at reduced cost for qualified senior Tarpon Springs residents.
Last week, during a pair of open houses promoting the PSTA's senior transportation options, Alahouzos announced the innovative new program would debut in December.
"It's always been my goal to provide rides for seniors to get to things like doctor's appointments, hospital visits, the grocery store or the bank, and we're very happy to partner with the PSTA and Florida Hospital to offer this program," Alahouzos said.
PSTA External Affairs Officer Bob Lasher said the program is still in the development stages, but the agency is looking forward to launching its latest service.
"It's designed to get low income seniors to and from life-sustaining needs, primarily medical related trips, using United Taxi, Uber, Lyft, Neighborly Services and others, and to put it all in a new software dispatch program where it is easy to use for everyone," Lasher said during the event at the library.
"We already have a program with United Taxi and Uber for $5 discounts on rides to and from 24 bus stops in Pinellas County, called Direct Connect, but we're hoping to make this program free to low-income seniors."
Although Lasher called the service a "pioneer program," Alahouzos said it needs to be as easy to use as possible for seniors.
"A lot of them don't know about Uber service, or even how to use the internet," he said. "So, under this program, all they will have to do is call the PSTA dispatch and the dispatch will call Uber and set up the ride."
He admitted the program could take a while to get off the ground, much like the Senior Information Center, because many seniors don't like to ask for help.
"I think this easy ride program would cover medical appointments and being able to use the taxi to take you to a bus would be fine, too," said resident Camela Barry. "I moved here from new Port Richey two years ago, and I didn't know some of these services were here. Now that I know, it's definitely helped. When you can't drive, it's like you're in jail. You're trapped. So, it's nice they're offering these services."
According to Alahouzos and Lasher, PSTA and city staff are working to create the criteria for applicants to qualify for the program as well as setting up the dispatch system with an eye toward a soft launch date of Dec. 3.
"If we can provide an option to make people more comfortable, it's a game changer," Lasher said.