A shortage of federal grant money effectively has doubled the bus fare that hundreds of Carroll seniors pay to get around the county.
Riders typically have paid a reduced fare of $1 for a round trip to one of the county's five senior centers, half the actual cost. Many seniors have purchased a book of a dozen tickets for a $5 donation. A $9,000 federal grant makes up the difference.
But the subsidy is spent, the grant won't be renewed until October and the county Bureau of Aging is forced to sell the books at their $10 face value. And, because of increases in cost to the bus company, the books no longer include two extra tickets.
"Any increase for those on a fixed income can be a hardship," said Jan Flora, director of the county Bureau of Aging. "Transportation is essential but it's expensive. Many seniors use public transportation every day as their primary means of transportation."
The bureau purchased 1,750 transportation books this year, each with a dozen $1 tickets. Each ticket is for a one-way trip to a senior center, which many of Carroll's elderly visit daily, or the grocery store or the mall.
"We subsidize and ask our clients to donate as much as they can afford for the books," said Flora. "The subsidy was really helpful. This loss will hurt, especially since the demand for tickets has increased."
The county's five senior centers have offered the tickets for an anonymous donation. A few riders placed $10 bills in the ticket box, but typically riders have donated $5, or half the cost, said Karen Lewns, the bureau's fiscal supervisor. Many can only afford to give their spare change, she said.
"People can donate anything they have for a book of tickets, so long as we have the funding to sustain this," Lewns said. "This is the first year we have run short. I know we will get the subsidy again and for the same amount, but until we do, we have to charge the full price. A lot of our center managers are worried that some seniors can't afford $10 for a book."
Carroll Area Transit System, the county's public transportation service, also has reduced by two the number of tickets in the books. The private, nonprofit company that provides ride services to the elderly, disabled and needy, is paying significant increases in its annual insurance premiums - from $25,000 to $200,000 - and had to cut costs. Rather than increase the cost per ticket, the company opted for books of 10.
"There are no bonus tickets and that saves us 20 percent," said Neal Roop, CATS executive director.
Ridership is increasing on all routes - Roop expects it to exceed 200,000 this year - and the majority of those riders are seniors, he said. CATS operates 32 buses and had 117,444 riders last year.
"We have had no decrease in ridership since we reduced the ticket books," Roop said. "We are usually booked full and two days in advance."