COTA Plus in Grove City replacing Evans Center senior bus program

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Grove City's Evans Center was closed, and all of the senior center's activities were postponed.

The center will remain closed until the pandemic ends, due in part to seniors being particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, Evans Center director Tammy Jefferson said.

"The Evans Center is a gathering place for seniors, where they can socialize and take part in activities," she said. "We don't want to put people at risk."

COTA Plus van

Along with activities and programs inside the center, the pandemic also forced suspension of the senior bus service the Evans Center had provided.

Seniors from the Grove City and Jackson Township communities could make appointments to have the bus pick them up and take them to the stores, medical offices, pharmacies and hair salons in the city and township.

When the Evans Center reopens – on a date that remains unknown – seniors again will be able to participate in activities and programs, but the daily senior bus service will not return, safety director Bill Vedra said.

With the expansion of the COTA Plus program in September 2020, "it just didn't make sense to restore the senior bus program," he said.

"The COTA Plus program offers what is effectively door-to-door service in a more accessible way to a greater number of people," he said.

COTA Plus was launched in July 2019 and operates as either a point-to-point ride-share service for a regular fare of $3 or as a connection to or from a COTA bus line at no cost.

The fares were suspended during the pandemic, but the fees went back into effect Jan. 11.

The original 5-mile COTA Plus service area was expanded Oct. 1, 2020, to include nearly all of Grove City, Jackson Township and Urbancrest.

COTA Plus offers many advantages for seniors as compared to the Evans Center bus service, Jefferson said.

"We had three buses in our fleet, but two of them were really old and broke down a lot," she said. "So we really only had one bus operating most of the time."

The logistics meant that most of the time, only one person at a time could be transported to a destination unless it was a group outing or people who were neighbors happened to be going to the same destination, Jefferson said.

Seniors were required to register three days in advance for the senior bus service, Vedra said.

Residents may arrange for COTA Plus service as soon as 15 minutes ahead of time by using the app or calling 614-308-4400 to schedule a ride, he said.

COTA offers six COTA Plus vehicles, and although the current capacity is only two riders at a time due to the pandemic, the capacity will increase after the virus recedes, Vedra said.

COTA Plus operates from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, whereas the senior bus service was available only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Jefferson said.

Seniors are charged a discounted fare of $2 for a COTA Plus ride, recreation superintendent Kelly Sutherland said.

The Evans Center bus charged a fare of $1 per ride, which meant a total of $2 for a ride to and from a location, she said. 

Seniors will pay a total of $4 for a ride to and from their destination, Sutherland said.

Along with the daily trips to stores and doctors' offices, the Evans Center bus also offered transportation for group outings to attend plays or for shopping and dining excursions, she said.

The center still will provide transportation for group outings once it reopens, Sutherland said.

The city is working with COTA to provide seniors transportation to the LifeCare Alliance lunches that will be held each weekday at the Evans Center after it reopens, Jefferson said.

Leah-Anne Schnapp was a regular rider of the Evans Center buses and used the bus service to take her to the grocery store, pharmacy or doctor's appointments, she said.

Schnapp used the COTA Plus service for the first time in December to get to a pharmacy to pick up some prescription medication.

"It was basically the same as the senior-center bus," she said. "The thing I really like about it is that you can get up in the morning and realize you need to get somewhere and call them, and they'll be there to pick you up a few hours later. You don't have to make an appointment three days in advance."

The $1 fare increase is a negative, but overall, Schnapp said, COTA Plus will work fine to get her where she needs to go.

Grove City resident Barbara Armentrout said she still is disappointed that the city won't restore the Evans Center bus service.

The increased fare is one concern, she said.

Although she drives herself to run errands and only used the Evans Center bus for group outings, Armentrout said, she has many friends who have relied on the senior center for transportation to doctors' appointments or trips to the store.

The increased fare might not seem like much, but it can add up for seniors who aren't able to drive themselves to appointments and would depend on the buses, she said. By eliminating the Evans Center bus service, the city seems to be making a choice to take away a service to seniors in the community, she said.

Armentrout wrote a letter that appeared in the Jan. 7 edition of ThisWeek Grove City Record, saying in part, "I don't think the seniors of Grove City asked much for our bus to continue. Every year it seems like our taxes go up, and on a fixed income that is very hard for many of us to handle. I would like to ask Grove City officials to rethink this, as this is most likely the only perk that we receive as residents of Grove City."

"We're not taking anything away from seniors," Vedra said. "We're actually improving and adding to the service with COTA Plus with just a small increase in the fare."

The Evans Center had three buses in its fleet, but two of them were old vehicles that often broke down, Jefferson said.

Usually, only two buses would be operating because one of the older vehicles would be in need of repair, she said.

An average of 25 people each day used the Evans Center buses for transportation to the center for the LifeCare Alliance lunches in 2017, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Grove City public-information officer Don Walters said.

An average of 15 people each day rode the buses to attend other programs or activities at the Evans Center, and an average of 15 people used the buses each day for transportation to stores or appointments, he said.

The costs for operating the buses, including drivers' wages and gasoline but not including depreciation or maintenance and repair costs, was $39,378, Walters said. 

The $1 fares generated a total of $51,000, he said. Seniors were not charged for rides to the LifeCare Alliance lunches.

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