Rollin#039; along: MRDD board gets new bus

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 29, 2004

From a distance, the big yellow bus is rather non-descript. As it approaches, the unblemished paint provides a little hint that this bus is different - in a good way. Step inside and you'll find yourself riding in the Cadillac of buses.

Bus No. 5 wheeled around the corner at Lorain and 5th streets on Tuesday afternoon, cruising to a stop in front of the Open Door School.

Bus driver Lana Markel steps out.

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"Is this the new one?" a woman walking by asks inquisitively.

"Yes, this is it," Markel replies.

With the push of a button and the whine of a hydraulic pump a special lift comes folding out of the back left hand side.

Within a few minutes a handful of Open Door School students pile on. Some step inside in the traditional way, others who use wheelchairs to improve their mobility, take the airlift up and then into the bus from arguably the coolest bus door in the city.

After a short jaunt from Ironton into Coal Grove, Markel's bus stops at Tri-State Industries to pick up the remainder of its daily passengers for the nearly 90-minute trip home.

The Lawrence County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities operates nine buses in the county, logging nearly 17,000 miles on county roadways each month.

Bus No. 5 is the newest. It went into service on Monday and was the first new bus the board purchased since 2002.

The MRDD bus system may not be recognized by many as they are often mistaken as school district buses.

But each day the buses provide transportation for more than 200 residents, young and old alike.

"These buses are the lifeline to our students and consumers," said Sarah Diamond Burroway, grants/special projects coordinator for the county board. "There is not public bus system in the area. (The MRDD bus system) is vital."

In addition to having room for six passengers seated in wheelchairs and 22 walk-on passengers, the new bus also features air conditioning, something Burroway says is important.

"We have to really be mindful of some of the medical conditions of the people we transport," she said.

In addition, Burroway said, the MRDD board must be mindful of how to spend their money wisely.

"There's been no state subsidy for purchasing buses for the past several years," she said, adding that the approximately $72,000 price was funded locally.

The county MRDD's transportation program began years ago, first with station wagons, then vans. The group's first bus was purchased in 1980.

Lawrence County MRDD superintendent Paul Mollette said the transportation system is one of the most critical needs in the county.

"In terms of our services, so many things have to be provided or made accessible to our consumers or they just wouldn't be possible," he said.

Transportation in rural counties such as Lawrence is also complicated by state rules prohibiting MRDD trips to be longer than 90 minutes, one-way.

"That makes us have to think innovatively and creatively," Burroway said.

Earlier this year the county's MRDD board formed a Pilot Transportation Committee to help identify possible options to improve the transportation needs of MRDD students and consumers.

One of the early focuses is to seek age-appropriate transportation options, Burroway said. An example of that might be finding a non-school bus option to transport the adult consumers to and from their work locations.

"When you're putting a 6-year-old on a bus with a 50-year-old, you can see there's something wrong here," said Paul Mollette, superintendent of the Lawrence County MRDD Board. "There seems to be no good solution, but I'm determined to push on it."

In addition to the daily trips to the Open Door School and the MRDD subsidiary company Tri-State Industries, the board attempts to meet other transportation needs as well.

"We're trying to run people all day long to the doctor's office, the grocery store," Mollette said, adding that the pilot program under development is seeking alternatives.

Options might include trying to find subsidy funding for parents and other caregivers who may have access to their private vehicles or contracting with others.

"At this point, we have no other options," Burroway said.

Back on the bus, the passengers are pointing out the sights from the comfort of their new ride.

"See that house?" asks Gloria Purdue. "That's my house."

See that shiny new bus? That's their bus.