Partnerships Allow Citizens to Bus Around Ponchatoula

You see the Ponchatoula City Bus on our streets but have you ever wondered how it got there and where it goes?

As with so many other successful projects, it began as – and still is – a joint effort.

Early one morning on her way to work in Amite, Parish Director of Council on Aging, Debi Fleming, heard “Johnny in the Morning” announce that the Ponchatoula City Council was meeting that evening to discuss the annual budget.

As soon as City Hall opened, Fleming called Mayor Bob Zabbia to present the idea of a city bus and he readily agreed, saying he’d been wanting one and asking her for a written proposal.

Hammond City Councilman Willie Grant Jackson had come to her some years before about a bus for his city, so she knew what it took to get one – a lot of work and a lot of forms to fill. Hammond’s bus had been in operation for about three years.

Fleming met with Mayor Zabbia, City Council members and city employees who had the expertise of knowing the streets and locations that wouldn’t interfere with traffic or private properties. Then in her own car, she drove the streets pointed out, recording distances and times needed for an entire route, schedule and operating costs for 250 days a year, about 8 hours a day. “Costs” refers to driver pay, insurance, and fuel.

She submitted applications concerning “demand/response” in rural areas through the Louisiana State Department of Transportation. These were submitted and are resubmitted each year.

The Council on Aging writes the proposals which go through parish government with Tangipahoa Parish as the applicant then on to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration.

She applied for a new vehicle through a grant which paid 80% with the difference paid by the Council on Aging.

With the Council’s being non-profit and already serving Seniors, Fleming was able to get funding through the Older Americans Act to provide services to Tangipahoa residents 60 upward. One of those services is transportation and that is what makes it possible to keep bus fares unbelievably low in cities – fifty cents!

Parish-wide there are now ten buses enabling a person under 60 as far north as State Line Road in Kentwood to come to Hammond to doctors for only $9.

To get and continue the service, Fleming must make sure everything is done in compliance with the Federal Transit Administration, as well as every regulation in conjunction with its particular funding. With approval obtained and maintained, anyone of any age can ride the city bus or parish buses for the same fees above.

Most appreciated are fundraisers for the parish buses such as the Walk for Seniors in May, Town of Kentwood United Way, City of Hammond, Parish Government, Ray Smith Memorial Foundation, community businesses annual donations and personal donations. Riders 60 years old and older are not denied services if they are not able to make a donation.

Mrs. Fleming says, “Any job at Council on Aging is a mission. We hire people who want to help people and we have terrific drivers.

“Judy Saltzman helped establish the Ponchatoula route to make it work,” Fleming continued. “She had driven for Head-Start, so she was patient, kind and loving.”

Each driver goes through training in CPR, Blood-borne pathogens, and Sensitivity and collects information for records at each stop. If at the end of a year, nobody gets on or off at a stop, the route may be changed. A route cannot be changed often as it is a “big deal.”

Fleming hires the drivers and pays the bills and the City of Ponchatoula reimburses the Council on Aging 50% of the cost to operate.

Since the new bus service began, people without transportation have been able to get jobs, do their shopping and get medical treatment.

Fleming says with a grin, “It’s not perfect and doesn’t work for everybody but we keep adjusting, trying to meet the needs. But until the bus goes down everybody’s road and stops at everybody’s house, everybody isn’t going to be happy!”

Look for the bus stop signs on corners throughout city streets, pick up schedules at City Hall and the library, and better yet, take the hour-long ride yourself to see just how far-reaching and how helpful this service is for only fifty cents each time you step aboard.

Or to go to Hammond, ride to North Oaks Medical Center at the stop there on the north side, board the Hammond bus, and for only another fifty cents, tour that city as well.

What a wonderful way to get around locally – whether to reach a necessary destination or just enjoy the ride – all possible because of the unity of the City of Ponchatoula and the Tangipahoa Council on Aging.

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