Connecticut’s dangerous, winding roads usually restrict Nutmeggers to their cars when they’re getting around rural parts of the state. So, when it comes to the carless -- the elderly, the disabled, and the poor -- how are they able to get where they need to go?
In many areas of the state, there’s Dial-A-Ride, a call-in-advance, curb-to-curb bus pickup service free of charge for senior citizens (it's $3 for the general public, with reduced rates for the disabled). In the Windham region, which lacks an extensive public transportation system, Dial-A-Ride is often all the rideless have.
Margo Rossiter drives a Dial-A-Ride bus, a Ford F350 truck attached to a custom bus body that holds 12 seated passengers. According to Rossiter, the bus she drives is a lifeline for many people in rural Connecticut.
“If we were to go away tomorrow, a lot of these people would fade into the woodwork and die, because there wouldn’t be anybody there to check on them, there wouldn’t be any way for them to get to the doctor’s or go get groceries,” Rossiter said.
The Windham region Dial-A-Ride serves ten towns in the area and will pick up clients between 8:30 am and 2:30 pm if they call two days in advance. The bus service also has extended hours for disabled people who live near a fixed-route bus line.
Many of Rossiter’s clients are elderly or physically disabled -- but some, like Candice Allard, just need a ride to work.
Allard lives in North Windham and uses Dial-A-Ride to get to her job on a farm in Coventry. Allard, 56, said it’s the long, steep hill on the way to work that keeps her from making the six-mile trip on her bike. She usually rides her bike down the hill on the way back home.
Allard said Dial-A-Ride is a “lifesaver,” because she can’t afford a car, and she said walking to work in the winter is treacherous.
"I’m not even going to try to get another car in Connecticut. It’s too expensive. I was basically driving and collecting cans at UConn just to pay for gas,” Allard said.
Despite day-to-day reliance of riders like Allard, Windham Region Transit District (WRTD) ridership actually decreased this past year, WRTD director Rose Kurcinik said, possibly because of falling gas prices, and partially because they had to cut back on some of their services, including Dial-A-Ride, to curb a $280,000 deficit.
According to Kurcinik, 50% of WRTD's funding comes from the federal government, and 33% from the state, but the company faces consistent budget challenges because while there is a need for its services, ridership numbers are small compared to more populated areas of Connecticut.
James Flores, a member of the Windham Town Council who drives buses for WRTD a few days a week, said that despite funding challenges, public transportation in the area needs to expand.
“Right now, you see our town, in the state of Connecticut, we have one of the highest unemployment numbers, and it’s related to transportation. It’s getting worse,” Flores said.
Flores said that job opportunities outside of Willimantic are inaccessible to town residents because they have no way of getting there. He said WRTD’s Route 32 bus line, which runs from Willimantic to Foxwoods Casino, is an example of how transportation can boost the local economy.
“In this area -- the northeast [corner] -- one of the biggest job employers is the casino, and we connect it. I wish we had the same program going to Manchester. Because if you could take the bus to Manchester, then we could connect with the Greater Hartford buses,” Flores said.
April Burke’s bus commute from Willimantic to Manchester Community College takes up to three hours each way -- by car, it’s only a 30-minute drive. Burke is blind, and bus transit is one of her only options. But because there’s no direct line from Willimantic to Manchester, Burke has to take a bus to Storrs, then a commuter bus to Hartford, and then a Hartford Dial-A-Ride bus to Manchester.
“People always ask why I don’t go to school at Eastern [Connecticut State University] or closer, but I have the right to go where I need to go,” Burke said.
Jennifer Lortie is another Eastern Connecticut resident who depends on public transportation. Lortie has cerebral palsy, and the WRTD bus she uses to commute to her job in Willimantic can accommodate her wheelchair.
Lortie said that while getting around Willimantic during the week using WRTD services is generally easy, the absence of weekend service makes it hard for people with disabilities to get out of the house.
“A lot of people with disabilities might be able to get to work and do things that they have to do in a professional sense, but they don’t always operate on the weekend. We miss out on social opportunities because of the limited access to the buses,” Lortie said.
Bus driver Rossiter said WRTD services prevent her clients from being homebound and create a sense of community. Rossiter said she and the other drivers look out for their clients.
Beginning her route one Monday morning in June, Rossiter pointed out that some of the curtains had been taken down in her client’s apartment.
“You get kind of nervous when you don’t see curtains in the windows. I hope it’s just curtain washing day,” she said. Most likely, it was. Rossiter’s client, an elderly Latino woman, boarded the bus.
They greeted each other in Spanish, and Rossiter put the bus into throttle, off to her next stop where two more Latino grandmothers were waiting for a ride across town.
This article is part of a series on commuting in Connecticut.