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Stranded residents seek transportation solution

It didn't matter that it was one of the coldest days of the winter. Jean Bloom of rural Somerset had to get to work, and the only mode of transportation available to her was walking shoes.

Bloom set out on her two-mile hike to Somerset, hoping a kind motorist might pick her up along the way.

"I was desperate to get to my job, but I'm not able to drive," she said. "What can you do? There have been many nights where I've cried over this."

The 55-year-old woman who suffers from arthritis eventually made it to work. She was half frozen and frustrated by a county system she claims does not provide sufficient transportation services to low-income individuals and families.

"I've gone through a winter here, begging for rides," said Bloom, who lives in the country. "There are quite a few people like myself. We're active, working people trying to get along in life."

Bloom's frustration goes beyond her lack of rides to work. In order to qualify for food stamps, Bloom is required to meet with Work Force officials in River Falls on a regular basis.

To get to one recent appointment, Bloom was prepared to hitchhike to the office. She was persuaded not to thumb a ride after local taxi operator Al Pape warned her of the dangers involved in hitchhiking.

She eventually got a ride through Grace Place volunteers, who Bloom says go out of their way to help people.

But Bloom says she's tired of asking people for rides, and understands the burden it places on others.

Bloom and several other concerned residents are working on a plan to better serve the needs of those trapped at home.

The small group hopes to apply for grant monies to start a shuttle service for low-income residents.

"There is a great need here in Wisconsin, but so many people don't even realize it," Bloom said. "Why can't we get something going?"

If the idea for a publically-run shuttle doesn't work, Bloom said the group would like to at least compile a list of area volunteer drivers who would be willing to take people to jobs or appointments.

The need for greater transportation options stretches from young mothers to retired residents. St. Croix County offers service to a few residents, including senior citizens and handicapped individuals, Bloom said.

"I just don't see the county coming up with a program for people under 65," Bloom said. "The county figures younger people have their friends to give them a ride. But it just doesn't work."

Taxi operator Al Pape said he sees the need for transportation growing as the county's population rises.

He'd like to help eliminate the problem with his taxi, but Pape said state and federal regulations limit how far he can transport someone to five miles.

Pape added that low-income clients have a tough time paying the fare for a taxi, and it puts them in a deeper financial hole if they resort to such transportation options.

"This is a huge problem in the rural community. There are people who slip through the cracks," he said. "And it's a very explosive issue."

Pape said the county provides transportation to some residents, but the service is limited.

"It doesn't get to the people who need it," he claimed.

Pape said he's frustrated by the lack of action concerning improved transportation.

"The county says they're here for people, but the people go right on by them," he said. "These are human beings. Let's put something together."

John Borup, St. Croix County Health and Human Services director, said transportation is an issue in most counties that do not have public bus service.

Borup said the county provides transportation services for many of its clients and few if any complaints have been forwarded to the Health and Human Services office.

He said it's unlikely that the department would institute a taxi service in the county due to its high cost.

"That's not viewed as our responsibility," he said.

Several clients of the W2 program, which is administered by a private contractor, have been critical of the lack of transportation to River Falls, he admitted.

Because the workforce program is no longer handled by the county, Borup said clients with transportation challenges related to Work Force appointments need to contact the River Falls officials or find alternate means of finding rides.

Mary Squyer, director of Economic Services in St. Croix County, said she doesn't see any help with transportation coming from the state or federal government anytime soon.

"We don't have any funds to pay for it," she said. "They don't even give us enough money to pay our staff."

Squyer said funding decisions are typically based on the needs of larger metropolitan areas, such as Milwaukee and Madison, and those areas have public transportation available.

"Transportation has been an issue since the beginning of time," she said. "Anytime you live in a rural area, you're going to have these problems.

"But there isn't anything that the state is going to do about it. There are two states -- Milwaukee and then the rest of Wisconsin. When they're making decisions, they're not looking at Pierce, Polk and St. Croix County. I don't think that's going to change."

One positive change has been the state's willingness to accept applications and annual reports for services via mail.

She said that will help eliminate some of the transportation challenges.

"It's a big help," she said.

Any federal programs, however, will always require the applicant to visit the office, Squyers predicted.

To provide input on the transportation issue or possible solutions, call Bloom at 246-0010 or Pape at 246-7185.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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