New bus will serve disabled and the elderly

SPHERE members gathered outside the new white bus the organization has gotten with a state grant. The town will be sharing the maintenance and the use of the bus.

Bright white and shiny new, with big windows and room for 20 people — or 16 people and two wheelchairs — a new bus has arrived in town to help serve the transportation needs of people with  disabilities, and senior citizens.

The bus will be shared by SPHERE, the organization that serves developmentally disabled adults, and the town.

“There is some good news in the world today,” Valerie Jensen of SPHERE said.

The new SPHERE bus “is set to let the good times roll,” she said.

SPHERE’s first trip was the week before Christmas.

“We bought 25 tickets to see a show on Wednesday put on by our disabled friends of Star Inc. of Norwalk, and we will be arriving in style on our shiny new white bus,” Ms. Jensen said. “Please wave to us if you see us in town — we’ve got wheels!”

The bus was obtained by SPHERE with a $40,000 grant from the Greater New Haven Transit District. The successful grant proposal was written by Rebecca Ciota of SPHERE. The additional funds to pay for the bus were raised through donors at a SPHERE fund raiser and other events.

The Board of Selectmen agreed Wednesday night, Dec. 12, that the town of Ridgefield will help with maintenance and administration, will provide a parking place, and will use the bus to augment transportation services already provided to senior citizens and the disabled.

Selectwoman Barbara Manners thought the bus could make a real difference in the lives of people who are homebound.

“There is a definite need in town,” she said. “It may be only one person at a time, driving people who are at home, to get about town.

“They need to be able to get out,” she said. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.”

SPHERE is eager to share the new bus.

“If we can share responsibility, not only will the bus be used more, but we’ll be able to use it more efficiently,” Rebecca Ciota, SPHERE’s volunteer attorney, told the selectmen.

“We estimate the cost of operating the bus will be $58,000 a year,” Ms. Ciota said. That estimate includes the cost of salary for drivers, and gas, and will vary with how much the bus is used.

A “new freedoms” grant from the state will help with the operating costs, and amounts to about $28,000 for the first year with a prospect for renewal based in part on the bus being adequately and appropriately used.

Cost-sharing between the town and SPHERE will be simple, according to Ms. Ciota.

“The town uses it, the town pays for it. SPHERE uses it, SPHERE pays for it,” she said.

SPHERE has a regular schedule of uses planned and also expects to make a variety of one-time trips with the bus. But there will be a lot of time the bus is available for town use. The sharing shouldn’t be hard to plan, since SPHERE’s uses are either regularly scheduled or planned well ahead.

“Every Thursday SPHERE has performing arts. Every Tuesday SPHERE has jewelry-making. When we go to The Met, we plan it a month in advance,” Ms. Ciota said.

To start, the town’s use of the bus will attempt to make up for a service that was cut in the budget squeeze of recent years.

“On the town side, a couple of years ago we eliminated one of the HART buses,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.

HART, the Danbury-based Housatonic Area Regional Transportation, operates the SweetHART bus for seniors as well as the Katonah shuttle for commuters. For some years, two SweetHART buses for seniors had been operating in town. But the town eliminated the second bus, saving about $50,000 a year, according to Mr. Marconi.

He thought having the town run the new bus itself would be less expensive than the current cost of SweetHART service.

“Now the town pays HART about $80,000 a year,” Mr. Marconi told the selectmen. “When the town needs a HART bus, it pays $60 an hour.”

But the details, both financial and practical, on how the new bus will be shared weren’t finalized at last week’s selectmen’s meeting.

“I think it’s great we got the grant,” said Selectman Andy Bodner. He also said, “I don’t have a handle on what we’re being asked to do.”

Mr. Marconi agreed to come back before the board with a summary of how everything will work.

But the general outlines were sketched out, and the selectmen agreed wholeheartedly that the town would cooperate and support SPHERE in both maintaining the bus and putting it to as much good use as possible.

The town’s principal obligation will be to handle maintenance of the bus. Mr. Marconi said he’d spoken to Peter Hill, the head of the Highway Department, and Burt Motta, its chief mechanic, and they’d said regularly servicing the bus — and the associated record-keeping required by the state — would not be an excessive burden.

“It’s a brand-new bus; hopefully, it won’t need much maintenance,” Mr. Marconi said.

The town will also provide a parking space for the bus, which had been sitting outside Ms. Jensen’s house on Main Street.

There will also be a requirement to track the use of the bus.

“The government likes detailed information,” Ms. Manners said. “Who’s riding the bus, what their ethnicity is, what their disability is.”

Ms. Ciota said filling out forms on that, journey by journey, would be part of the bus drivers’ job. “How many on the bus? How many under 60 and disabled? How many over 60?”

Someone — perhaps a volunteer, perhaps a town administrative worker — would then be responsible for getting the driver’s ride-by-ride sheets and compiling them, producing the kind of summary reports the government needs to make sure its grant money is being used as intended.

How all that works will be part of what Mr. Marconi brings back to the board, probably at a meeting in January.

“Believe me, we’re going into full swing tomorrow on this,” he told the selectmen.

There is also a Transportation Task Force that has been studying transportation needs for senior citizens, the disabled, and homebound people. That group will likely be involved in planning what kind of use the town puts the new bus to.

A dozen or so SPHERE members and supporters were at the meeting, and before the selectmen’s vote a couple of them spoke up.

Don Ciota of Main Street — who is the father of Rebecca Ciota and Valerie Jensen — said the organization wasn’t looking for town money.

“SPHERE cannot accept monetary reimbursement for this bus. They can’t rent it. The only way this would work is if the town is providing services-in-kind,” he said. “SPHERE is looking to partner with the town.”

Chris Mann, who played Romeo in SPHERE’s movie adaptation of the Shakespeare play, made a plea.

“On behalf of SPHERE,” he said, “Please, Lord, let the SPHERE bus run. For all my members here, help us out!”

The selectmen’s vote was unanimous, and followed by a burst of applause from SPHERE supporters.

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