ALLIANCE — A new transportation service is rolling through Box Butte and Sheridan Counties. Panhandle Connect, launched in mid-October, is being offered by Alliance-based Panhandle Trails Intercity Public Transit.
Panhandle Connect is considered a micro-transit service. While it’s available to everyone, its primary focus is serving senior citizens age 60 and over and individuals with disabilities throughout the Panhandle region.
Jonnie Kusek, chief operating officer with Panhandle Trails Intercity Public Transit, said the new service utilizes volunteer drivers. Because the service is on-demand, it doesn’t restrict people’s mobility needs or their ability to use fixed route transportation.
Panhandle Connect is an outgrowth of Panhandle Trails Intercity Public Transit, which offers public transportation throughout the Nebraska Panhandle.
“Through those experiences, we learned there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to public transportation, especially in rural areas,” Kusek said. “Most services are restricted by city or county boundaries, so there’s a limit on where they can go and hours they can operate.”
She said they’ve received numerous calls for assistance from people outside those boundaries. It was advance public feedback that led to creation of the new service.
“From what I understand, we’re the first type of this service to be funded primarily by the Nebraska Department of Transportation,” she said. “We’re excited to start this pilot project and see where it goes.”
It’s been less than a month since the service started, but it’s already been in great demand. Within the first three weeks, they’ve registered at least 30 transports without any advertising.
“We hope to expand into Dawes and Scotts Bluff Counties simultaneously,” Kusek said. “The need will be what drives our service because our service area is the entire Panhandle, 75 miles from any boundary in Box Butte County.
“The Department of Transportation provides 80% of our funding, so we have to raise the rest locally,” she said. “Still, we’re trying to keep the costs minimal. For seniors over 60 and those with disabilities, their cost is a dollar for when they board one of our vehicles.”
Kusek hopes their service will allow area seniors to age in place in their own home while still having the needed mobility to make it to medical appointments and to do shopping.
She said access to quality health care is one of her passions, so the company wants to offer people in rural areas the opportunity to reduce isolation and to remain active, no matter their age.
Panhandle Connect is also looking for volunteer drivers throughout the Panhandle area. For more information on the service or to apply for a driving position, contact Panhandle Connect at 308-761-8747.