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HIRTA Now offers riders flexibility

Program only available in Newton

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 10:24 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017 10:31 a.m. CDT
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(Justin Jagler/Daily News)
HIRTA Now is being tested exclusively in Newton. The new service provides passengers with greater flexibility through same-day scheduling.

The Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA) launched its new Now program in Newton last week, a same-day service that offers rides for $5 each trip.

Unlike HIRTA’s traditional services, which require riders to schedule their trips at least one day in advance, Now will allow passengers to arrange rides on a more flexible schedule.

“If you wake up and you’re not feeling well, and you want to go to the doctor, you can call,” said HIRTA Operations Manager Brooke Ramsey. “If you forgot milk and you need it for your recipe, give us a call, and we’ll come and get you as soon as we can under the HIRTA Now service.”

The program is starting small. It’s currently only available in Newton and consists of one minivan driver. Ramsey expects the program to do well in Newton. If it does, other cities like Ames, Pella, Knoxville and Indianola could be next to receive the service.

“We’re going to see how it goes and evaluate it after it’s been up and running for a few weeks,” Ramsey said. “If we see that we’re needing to add to the service, we’re definitely going to do that.”

The idea for Now came about because of changes on the docket for people on Medicare and Medicaid-funded programs, particularly people with physical and intellectual disabilities. HIRTA has been in talks with Progress Industries, the local nonprofit that provides services and support for people with disabilities.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released rules that are intended to encourage the integration of people using those services into the community. The integrated settings rules are set to be enforced in 2019, but communities are encouraged to head in that direction sooner to provide disabled people with a better quality of life and help reduce stigmas in the general public.

Ramsey said as disabled people are integrated more heavily into the community, there will be a need for more same-day services to give people more choices, freedom and flexibility. In response, HIRTA started its Now program in Newton.

“We decided to pick the city of Newton for a couple different reasons,” she said. “Our services for the last several years have been really well received in Newton, and the utilization is very high. We have a really good open line of communication with other businesses and the city itself.”

While the Now program was born out of an increasing need for same-day services for disabled people, it is available for everyone. There are no restrictions as to who can use HIRTA’s services.

Because it is less efficient to operate than HIRTA’s traditional services, Now is more expensive per ride. However, Ramsey said keeping low fares is important for the agency. During her time with HIRTA, the agency’s rates have declined. The traditional program charges $2 per ride within the city.

Ramsey said people use the service more when fares are lower. Newton has played a role in keeping the fares down, too.

“The city has historically made a contribution to our program, and we continue each year to ask them for that assistance to help keep that fare at $2,” Ramsey said.

When Ramsey arrived at HIRTA six years ago, it had just two employees. The agency operated strictly on a contract basis with local nonprofits. In 2011, HIRTA started direct services with no contractor in the middle.

These days the agency offers passengers many different options. Rides are available to Des Moines and Iowa City. Regular shuttles connect Pella and Knoxville. Towns within Jasper County, like Newton, have their own services. The Now program signals another expansion.

Contact Justin Jagler at 641-792-3121 ext 6532 or jjagler@newtondailynews.com

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