Theresa Gardner lives by herself, has had the same job for more than 20 years and has a busy social life. But cerebral palsy keeps Gardner from driving herself to her job and all the other places that keep her independent.
Now, after being in service a little over a year, the ride program Gardner uses to get from place to place will terminate in January due to a lack of funding. The program, Accessible Integrated Rides, was started in September 2016 by the Montana Independent Living Project and is operated by Helena Transportation. But Kiki Moses, the Business Development Analyst at MILP, called more than 100 organizations and individuals without finding enough support to make it past January. An attempt in early 2016 to get the city of Helena to include AIR into its transportation budget failed.
Even with AIR, it can be difficult for a person with a disability to get a ride in Helena. Capital Transit, Helena’s public transportation system, runs its paratransit bus from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays except for holidays. Riders have to make a reservation 24 hours ahead of the time they need to be dropped off and picked up. Gardner said she sometimes has to sit in the waiting room at her doctor’s office an hour and a half before her appointment because it’s the only time a ride is available.
AIR only operates on evenings, weekends and holidays -- when Capital Transit isn’t running. AIR riders have to call ahead to schedule a time to be picked up and dropped off, like they do with public transportation.
Despite any hassle, AIR is a lifeline for Gardner and other riders with disabilities. Gardner recently performed in the Nutcracker on the Rocks which required weeks of evening rehearsals. She also can go to restaurants, movies and community events such as Alive at Five.
“I got to my independence because of this service,” Gardner said.
While the Montana Independent Living Project is able to fund all of the administrative costs, it relies on organizations and individual donors to pledge $3,600 for a month of rides. AIR gives approximately 250 rides a month.
“It’s just the cost of the voucher,” Moses said. “The rider pays $1 co-pay and the difference is subsidized at $12 to $14 a month.”
Without donors, the program will end in January, leaving people with disabilities a short window to commute to a job, go to appointments or grocery shopping and be a part of the community.
Gardner, who is 43, said she’s lucky her mom lives in town and would be able to help her with transportation, but it keeps her from being independent.
“Who would want to call their mom when they’re almost 50?” she said.
While a lot of people with disabilities don’t have the same support system as Gardner, she said it can still be taxing on her mom who, before AIR, had to plan her life around her daughter’s transportation needs. Relying on a parent for transportation also isn’t sustainable.
“She’s busy too. She has a life,” Gardner said. “And there’s going to be a time when my mom can’t drive.”
Gardner said she understands it’s easy for people without a disability to take it for granted, but said she wished the same people would understand how vital it is for someone like herself.
“Anybody can become disabled at any time,” she said.
Moses said it’s a last ditch effort to find donors to sustain the program for a few months. It’s her ultimate goal that newly elected city commission members would reconsider funding the AIR program on a permanent basis. Past negotiations “have not gone well,” Moses said.
In February 2016, the Helena Area Transportation Advisory Council recommended the city commission give the Montana Independent Living Project $22,528 in TransADE funds, or state funds to local transit services for those who are elderly or disabled.
But the commission chose to direct the funding elsewhere due to concerns that the money would go to Capitol Taxi, the operator of MILP’s bus service. In a previous Independent Record story, City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said it essentially require the city to contract with Capitol Taxi without going through a request for proposals before selecting a contractor.
“That is not the way public policy is done,” Jodoin said.
Randall Camp, the city’s public works director, did not respond to an interview request to see if the city’s position on supporting the program had changed since it is at risk of going away.
At the same meeting in February 2016, Commissioner Andres Haladay questioned whether MILP’s evening and weekend service could be expanded and compete with the city’s bus service and reduce ridership. Haladay also didn’t respond to an interview request.