San Diego Tina Chamberlin of La Mesa was happy when her 82-year-old mother Rena Marseli decided to give up driving this past summer. Besides being 82 years old, Mrs. Marseli "had a vision problem," Chamberlin explains. "My father, by that time, had already stopped driving."
Chamberlin assumed her mother (her father passed away shortly after her mother quit driving) would have plenty of options when it came to getting to the store, the bank, the doctor, and the hairdresser. She found otherwise. "Transportation became an issue immediately. We discovered that Dial-A-Ride no longer exists. So my husband called the La Mesa Senior Center, and they were very little help. They gave him two phone numbers for taxi companies and one individual who didn't even do the senior rides anymore. They also gave us the number of Jewish Family Services, but my mother doesn't [financially] qualify for that, and even if she did, it would be inappropriate; she isn't Jewish."
Rachel Hurst, from the city of La Mesa's planning and development department, says the city receives calls from people like Chamberlin and Marseli who want to know what seniors can do for transportation. It's a question she used to have an answer for. "La Mesa had a Dial-A-Ride program for many, many years," Hurst says. "It was funded with money that used to come to local governments from the state and federal government that now goes to [the Metropolitan Transit Development Board]."
An El Cajon city official told the same story. "We used to have a Dial-A-Ride program, but that no longer exists here in El Cajon. Have you contacted the Metropolitan Transit Development Board? They are kind of in charge of the transportation situation."
Officials from both cities say, barring an unexpected windfall from the federal or state government, they won't be able to offer transportation services to seniors in the foreseeable future.
"We have discontinued some services in some areas: El Cajon, Spring Valley, La Mesa -- most of East County," says Gonzalo López, public information officer at MTDB. "We've been doing this since 2000 until November of last year, 2003. So it has been a process of about three years that we have been cutting down on the services. Starting in 2000 we started to cut some services because of what we call productivity issues."
Productivity issues is a nice way to say the services cost more money than they brought in. The $4 to $7 charged per trip for the door-to-door service never came close to covering the costs of buying, maintaining, insuring, fueling, and driving a fleet of vans. "The subsidies were tremendous," López explains. "It was something like $37 per passenger that we were subsidizing, per trip."
Combined with decreased transportation grants from state and federal governments over the past half decade, the subsidy proved unaffordable. "We get our funds from the state and from the federal government," López explains, "and both of those budgets have been cut. This year we are facing a $30 million budget deficit, so we need to make adjustments."
Dial-A-Ride, explains López, was a logical candidate for cutting. "We were given the choice of cutting some of the fixed routes or doing this," López says. "And since these are less used by people, then we had to make that choice. That doesn't mean that some people are not affected by this, because many people are."
But, López adds, "People do have choices. If you have a certified Americans with Disabilities Act disability, you receive complimentary transit service. And if they live within three quarters of a mile of a bus stop, that is probably an area that they can get to and use the fixed transit system."
The Metropolitan Transit Development Board will also counsel anyone who calls on what bus and trolley routes to use to get from A to B. But Rena Marceli lives two hilly miles from the nearest bus stop and further from the nearest trolley station. So, Chamberlin says, "I told her, 'Well, Mom, luckily you're financially able to afford taxis.' She was uncomfortable with that because she wasn't familiar with taxis. And, having been so independent, this to her seemed difficult."
Chamberlin convinced her mother to test out the taxi idea. "So, of course," she recalls, "we started with the big one: Yellow Cab. She called Yellow Cab, and they came within a very reasonable amount of time, right to the house. All she wanted to do on this test day was go about three or four miles to her bank in Casa de Oro. So he took her to the bank, and she asked him to wait for her. He said he could not wait, even though she said she was willing to let the meter run. He told her, 'Just call Yellow Cab again when you're ready to leave. They'll send somebody.' So she went from her bank on one side of the street across the street to Albertsons, did a little shopping, and right there inside Albertsons they actually have a phone specifically for calling Yellow Cab. She used it when she was ready to leave. They said they'd be there in a little while. They never came. She was standing outside of Albertsons in the September heat waiting and waiting. Coincidentally, there was an elderly couple there registering voters. They saw her standing there waiting, and they convinced her to call again. Yellow Cab said they were on their way. She waited about another 30 minutes; this is after already waiting about 20 to 25 minutes. Yellow Cab never came. Finally, this gentleman said, 'Let me call for you.' So he called for her, on his personal cell phone, and their answer was, 'To tell you the truth, we don't have anybody, and we are not coming to get her.' This is after a good hour or more. So this gentleman says, 'Let me drive you home. Where do you live?' But my mother was very leery. She was thinking, 'I don't know who this guy is.' And she was very exhausted by this time. Luckily for her, the assistant manager was coming from the parking lot to work at Albertsons. He recognized her and he said, 'What is the problem?' She explained it, and he said, 'Get in the car. I am taking you home.' She did go with him because she felt comfortable going with someone she knew. From that experience she got real shaky."
Nervous though she was, Marceli agreed to give taxis another try. But the next attempt wasn't much better than the first. "We thought maybe we should use a taxi company that was a little more local," Chamberlin says. "So we called White Cab, which is in El Cajon, owned by a Russian fellow. I explained what had happened with Yellow Cab, and I asked him, 'Do you take people on short trips? Will you come and pick her up?' 'No problem, lady, that is what we do; that's our business. We'll be there.' It wasn't two or three days later, she calls them in the morning because she had a doctor's appointment over in Rancho San Diego. She called White Cab and they told her, 'We don't do short trips like that.' Now, to give them the benefit of the doubt, this is an 82-year-old lady talking to them on the phone. I am not quite sure if she was getting her message across. There was a pretty thick language barrier. So she calls me on my cell phone as I am driving to work, and she was so upset that she was crying on the phone, telling me, 'I thought we had this all settled. I thought I could get out, be independent. Now I'm stuck here. I am going to die here.' I said, 'Give me their phone number.' I called and said, 'I just talked to you three days ago, and you assured me you were in business for taking people even on short trips.' And he said, 'Okay, we'll do it; we'll do it.' And I said, 'I'm feeling like you are doing me a special favor. I need to know that you are reliable and will do this every single time she calls, not just because I am on the phone making a scene.' And I was. He said, 'No, no, no, you have her call me right back, and we will take care of her.' Well, actually, from then on they have taken care of her."
Reached by phone, three East County cab company owners, Maria Tellez of Another Cab Company, Johnny Hakim of Mr. Taxi Cab, and Vadim Frolov of White Cab (the "Russian fellow" Chamberlin spoke to) all said they are happy to pick up seniors at their homes, even for the shortest of trips. But, Frolov explained, East County cab drivers are sometimes loath to bring passengers to destinations within the San Diego city limits because Metropolitan Transit, which regulates taxis, won't allow them to pick up fares inside of the city limits, not even the person they took there to begin with. "If I pick them up, I risk a $1500 fine," Frolov explains. "And many East County residents shop and get their medical care in San Diego. For example, a lot of people in Fletcher Hills and Lake Murray shop at Vons on Baltimore and Lake Murray. But that is actually in San Diego. So if I bring an old lady, I can't bring her back."
Availability aside, taxis are not cheap. "A couple of days ago," Chamberlin says, "she did take the taxi to Vons on La Mesa Boulevard where there is also a little Supercuts, so she figured it up, and her taxi was $12 one way and $12 the way back. The haircut was $17 or something like that, and she tipped the driver. So her whole little morning out was, like, $45, for a haircut. Like I said, she can afford it. But not every senior citizen in East County can afford that."