Three times a week, Nancy Nelson wakes up at 6 a.m.
She shuffles into her kitchen to make breakfast before taking her morning medication and getting dressed.
By 8 a.m. she sits in her favorite chair, looks out the window and waits for the HOP to pick her up and take her to see friends at the Killeen Multipurpose Center.
When 9 a.m. rolls around, she becomes impatient and calls the HOP service to learn her pickup could be as late as 10:30 a.m.
“I could walk there before the bus comes to get me,” said Nelson, 75. “I could go back to bed and get up again and the bus still wouldn’t be here.”
Robert Ator, director of urban operations for the Hill Country Transit District, which operates the HOP, said the transit service offers senior citizens a free ride to a senior center for a communal meal. But it’s only required to get them to the center in time for the meal and then provide a ride home after it.
“I can stay home and eat,” said Patricia Holland, 74. “I come here for the fellowship. We don’t have jobs, so we talk to each other. Coming here for a few hours a week gets me out of the house and helps me keep my sanity.”
The transit system recently received a $400,000 grant from the Texas Department of Transportation to help, in part, with services for seniors, but some area residents feel the money is not allocated properly.
“The seniors here are not getting services. The HOP is given a lot of money and they are not doing what is assumed they are doing,” said C.J. Jones, retired senior volunteer program coordinator for Bell County. “We can’t schedule a lot of activities because it used to come down to no one wanted to participate. Now, it’s not that they don’t want to participate, but how are they going to say they want to come to a 9 a.m. exercise class if the HOP gets them here whenever they get them here?”
TxDOT officials said the funding is intended to enhance rural and urban mobility programs and provide services to seniors, people with disabilities and other transit-dependent residents who rely on aid to get to work, school and health care facilities.
Carole Warlick, general manager for the Hill Country Transit District, said in an email the TxDOT contributions are state public transportation funds that are used as the required match to draw down Killeen federal Section 5307 funds. She said these funds will be used for operating expenses, including driver salaries and fringe, fuel, bus maintenance, insurance, communications and uniforms, for the Killeen urban area.
Special transit vs. fixed routes
Ator said he understands some seniors want to arrive early or stay later to partake in senior center activities, which is why in addition to the fixed-route service, the HOP offers a door-to-door service for those who qualify.
The HOP’s special transit service is provided to individuals with disabilities that prevent them from using the fixed-route bus system. Eligibility for the door-to-door service is directly related to the inability of a person with a disability, physical or mental, to use the existing fixed-route system, Ator said.
“In Texas, a doctor does not fill out the paperwork for you to get the HOP. These older adults are given a stack of papers that looks like a Bible (that they must) fill out,” Jones said. “A lot of times that gets declined, so then you have to appeal.
“Now let’s say I am 60, 70, 80 years old and you have given me a whole lot of information ... then you want me to fill out an appeal ... you know no one is going to do that unless they have a family member to do it for them,” Jones said. “Guess who decides what you get? They don’t have a case manager. They don’t have a social worker making these decisions (Ator) does. How is he medically qualified to decide if you can or cannot?”
Ator said applicants complete a self-certification process. If a request is denied, the appeal goes to him and he “strives to be as fair as possible” in making a determination.
The cost of the door-to-door service is another issue for many seniors like Nelson and Holland who live on a fixed income. Rides cost $2 each way, double the price of a ride on the fixed-route system. Fare discounts are offered for riders older than 60, on Medicare or who are disabled, Ator said, but there are no discounts offered on the door-to-door service.
“I understand their frustration ... but we seek out grants and special funding to keep our fares as low as we can,” Ator said. “Whenever possible, we encourage our riders to use the fixed-route system. What seniors can do is pay for the door-to-door service one way to get them to the senior centers earlier and then use their free ride to take them home. That way they are only paying for one ride.”
During the recent election, Killeen mayoral candidate Richard “Dick” Young was shocked to find out the HOP did not provide seniors a free ride to polling locations. He also said he was surprised to see buses carrying only one or two people, with an empty bus pulling in behind it.
“Charging people, especially our senior residents, to ride public transportation to vote is similar to poll taxes that were used to suppress people,” he said. “We should be encouraging voter turnout.”
Young said he drove several senior HOP riders to the polls.
“Killeen spends a lot of money on the HOP and those funds should be going toward providing services to our seniors and alleviating the cost for them to ride, because it’s not cheap,” he said. “The cities built these senior centers to give them a sense of belonging, and if they can’t get there, they will just fade away.”