Jury finds seniors want for mobility

David Briggs
Jean Milten-Berger, 90, is among the satisfied customers of Marin Transit’s Whistlestop program in Dillon Beach. The once-a-week service, the only public transportation in the area, would be offered every weekday if a federal grant is approved in June.

“I shouldn’t be driving; I know that,” Ruth Fleshman said. But Ms. Fleshman, 83, a jocular retiree who lives in Point Reyes Station, sometimes has no choice but to drive—despite the fact that she tires easily and finds it hard to see pedestrians wearing dark clothing. When the bus arrives at the wrong time or her volunteer driver is unavailable and Ms. Fleshman wants to see a dentist in Novato or buy groceries at Costco or teach her exercise class at a senior center in San Rafael, she reluctantly gets behind the wheel. “I didn’t hit anybody.”

Even when she does not drive, very basic things that people take for granted sometimes require weeks or months of planning for seniors like Ms. Fleshman living in West Marin, according to more than a dozen residents and transportation officials interviewed this week by the Light. Asked to describe how her diminished mobility had changed her life, Ms. Fleshman’s eyes grew bleary: “My life becomes very, very small.”

Transit officials and local activists tout progress on their special-needs services in West Marin, including the pursuit of a federal grant that could provide for northwest Marin’s first daily bus service to and from Petaluma, but a report issued last week by the county’s citizen watchdog said that “existing conventional transportation options for active seniors” remain inadequate throughout the county despite years of locals clamoring for new services.

Residents say there are many in West Marin with a stake in transportation, the burden of rural isolation disproportionately falling on high school students in Tomales, low-income agriculture workers and disabled residents, who lack access to cars, the social world that mobility opens up, and services from grocery shopping to medical care.

But the need for transportation may be the greatest for seniors, who have long identified transportation as their foremost unmet need, according to Joan Corbett, executive director of Point Reyes Station-based nonprofit West Marin Senior Services.

Demographers say women like Ms. Fleshman are the face of Marin’s future. On the county’s coast, people over age 65 represent as little as 17.5 percent of the population in Bolinas to more than a quarter of the population in Dillon Beach. One in three of those seniors are disabled.

The oldest age cohort is expected to grow proportionally faster than any younger groups for the next several decades, with the population of those over 62 doubling in the 20-year period that ends in 2030, according to projections by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The number of people over the age of 80 will grow even faster.

The report, publicly issued last week by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury, called for new public-private partnerships, vans and outreach to provide better service for all of the county’s graying population, including the one in three West Marin seniors who are disabled and need access to services in Fairfax, San Rafael and Petaluma. And they said that the sparse options are compelling seniors who are more prone to car accidents to drive past the age when it is safe to do so.

“Is Marin prepared to accommodate the greater number of older adults who have either stopped driving or limited their driving? The answer is a resounding maybe,” the report said.

Among the report’s findings are that the lack of Marin Transit service in West and northwest Marin “lessens the ability of seniors in those areas to remain independent and healthy,” with focus groups of seniors reporting that they defer essential nutritional and medical needs in order to continue living in West Marin. “West Marin seniors, including those in Northwest Marin, should have additional transit options within West Marin and Northwest Marin towns and between those areas and the rest of the county.”

County transportation officials say their efforts are not perfect, but they said they have worked hard to centralize information about transit and provide the existing levels of service to West Marin residents, including the West Marin Stagecoach, Whistlestop, deviations from routes for disabled people and by helping fund a volunteer-driver service called West Marin TRIPtrans provided by West Marin Senior Services.

“The challenge that we have in particular—with Marin County as a whole and not just unique to West Marin—is the fact that with the topography and the urban density it gets really hard to take our fixed route services because it is woefully inefficient for us,” said David Rzepinski, general manager of Marin Transit, noting the unique challenges of managing a county with urban and rural residents as well as tourists.

“Not only do we have the land mass where you’ve got 85 percent of the county as open space, but you’ve also got these unique treasures [like Point Reyes National Seashore].”

Mr. Rzepinski said he agreed with the demographic premise of the grand jury’s report but thought the report did not sufficiently analyze the extensive services the county already provides.

Local residents have pushed for those services. Groups like the West Marin Transportation Action Group, Tomales Transit and the Stinson Beach and Bolinas-based Whitecaps have pushed county officials to stave off some proposed service cuts and plan for new services.

If approved by officials, a $172,000 grant application filed on Monday would create Stagecoach Route 90, connecting Dillon Beach and Tomales to Petaluma throughout weekdays for a half-price fare of $1 for seniors, caretakers, people with disabilities and students.

Stinson Beach residents are also currently lobbying for an additional West Marin Stagecoach service at 4 p.m. on weekends to serve residents and tourists at a busy time that sees many leaving the beaches and headed into the city, according to Transportation Action Group’s Stinson representative Pamela Lichtenwalner.

Voter-approved fees like Measure B, passed in 2010, and the 2004 sales tax Measure A have also allowed Marin Transit to add some services.

Dillon Beach resident Doris Pareas has lobbied for transportation in her sparsely served corner of West Marin since 2009. Although Ms. Pareas drives regularly, often delivering food to her husband’s Tomales restaurant, William Tell House, she said she was divinely inspired to fight for her neighbors. Ms. Pareas’ pastor, Rev. Dr. Cornelia Cyss Crocker, sparked an interest in the issue as she discussed the most pressing needs of her congregation.

“We’re off of everybody’s radar; everybody out her kind of likes it that way,” Ms. Pareas said, noting that the town lacks basic medical services, a library, a grocery store and a health clinic. “A lot of these seniors, they don’t like asking for help. They’re afraid that if people think they can’t do it, they’ll have to move. The big part is their being able to make it on their own. Most of their friends are older, too, so it’s hard to find someone you can trust open up and say how needy you are.”

Despite the efforts of the volunteers and award-winning staff at West Marin Senior Services to meet needs on an ad hoc basis, the subsidized volunteer-driver program has been slow to get off the ground in Northwest Marin for reasons that are not understood, according to residents and the program administrator.

And Ms. Pareas thinks regular bus service is a hard sell in part because Marin would essentially be paying for the residents to leave the county to shop in Petaluma, which is in neighboring Sonoma.

On Wednesday morning driver Al Malone is resting alone in the silence of a sunrise overlooking the mouth of Tomales Bay in his Whistlestop bus, the only public transportation service in Dillon Beach. He drives in West Marin only once a week, from Dillon Beach to Petaluma, and he says it is his favorite part of his job. “They really appreciate it,” Mr. Malone said of his clients’ opinion of his driving.

The silence ends shortly after 9 a.m. when Mr. Malone starts making stops in Dillon Beach, at the post office and at the houses of local residents; his bus becomes a social hive as women—the passengers are all women—board and chat with excitement. This is the first and only time some of them will leave Dillon Beach this week.

“When I do it on my own, I can’t do all of my errands,” said passenger Lea Christensen-Morris, 64, who walks with a cane. “This is just a god-send. It is absolutely a god-send. It’s five bucks as opposed to 20 bucks. It’s fun; it’s an absolute hoot. I love the social aspect.”

Mr. Malone asks Jean Milten-Berger how she is as she boards the bus. “Any day I’m breathing is a good day,” the 90-year-old, with a head of full curly white hair, replied.
The seniors say even though it is hard to move around they would not prefer living anywhere else.

Not all of the passengers felt they would need daily transit service into the city, but some felt that the additional service would be much appreciated. Those thoughts were echoed by Roger Kovach of the Whitecaps senior group.

“I will repeat that fixed route or fixed-schedule bus services do not meet the needs of the aged and that local services are a major need not being addressed by anyone,” Mr. Kovach said.

Federal officials are expected to decide whether to approve Marin’s grant for Tomales and Dillon Beach route by June 28. County officials said they have learned from failed applications for the grant in the past and have created a more compelling argument for how they will use the funds.

Ms. Pareas is optimistic—not just about the grant, but about the seniors who will be served.

“They’re not sissies—they’ve been out here all these years,” she said.