In her position overseeing a transportation network that serves 14 mostly disadvantaged communities in the Mon Valley, Paula McWilliams has seen this scenario too many times:
Heritage Community Transportation takes someone to a medical appointment in McKeesport or Monroeville. Then the doctor refers the person to a specialist in the North Hills, leaving the person struggling to find transportation for the medical care.
“When we started getting those kinds of requests, we realized we had another problem to deal with,” said Ms. McWilliams, president and CEO of Heritage Community Initiatives in Braddock, which initially established a program to link workers with Mon Valley jobs.
“When someone says your life depends on it and the appointment is hours away or you find a second or third job and don’t know how to get there, that’s a real problem.”
To address that situation, Heritage pitched a program called the Travel Navigation Center, a sort of on-call transportation concierge, to the Pittsburgh Foundation. With an initial $70,000 foundation grant, the program is working with the Access system that provides transportation to the elderly to field calls and help design a way to get a client from here to there in the most efficient, least costly manner.
The planning service is free but customers have to pay for their transportation. Although Heritage mostly is publicizing the program in the Mon Valley, it is open to anyone in Allegheny County.
“Transportation is not an easy thing for a lot of people. We’re hoping we can ease one piece of it,” Ms. McWilliams said. “If we can, then we’ll see if there’s a business model that we can develop to make it work long-term.”
Ms. McWilliams said Heritage is working with Access because the two groups already refer clients to one another, and the staff at the Access call center is familiar with various services. For example, a client who needs transportation for cancer treatment may be able to use an American Cancer Society service.
“They already handle these kinds of issues, so they are the ideal partner here,” said Melanie Young, Heritage’s manager of transportation.
The travel center will work best, Ms. McWilliams said, when it can design a transportation plan for someone who needs regular service for a job or medical treatment. She said UMPC and Allegheny Health Network have been major partners in referring clients.
The program will be evaluated before the end of the year for possible future funding.
“This is a research project and a service project to understand what type of service people would be responsive to,” said Jane Downing, senior program officer for community and economic development at the Pittsburgh Foundation.
“We may find out seniors don’t want to use a service like Uber that has another person in the vehicle. If it works, it has potential to be used across the county.”
Heritage started more than 30 years ago as the charitable wing of the former Braddock Medical Center, and its work includes the transportation programs, plus summer lunch, pre-school and after-school programs. It has worked for decades with the Pittsburgh Foundation, which helped to set up its initial job transportation program.
Heritage’s current fixed-route transportation system, funded through the state’s Act 89 program, is the only one in the state operated by a human services agency. It charges 25 cents a ride on three routes it operates on a regular weekday and weekend schedule to take riders where Port Authority service is unavailable.
The Travel Navigation Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays at 412-562-5104.
Ed Blazina: email@example.com, 412-263-1470 or on Twitter @EdBlazina.