(WATERTOWN, N.Y.) – The Volunteer Transportation Center, Inc. has launched a Mobility Management program in Jefferson County with the intent to improve transportation access for county residents.
The program, which launched May 1, is headed up by John H. Exford, who serves as Jefferson County Mobility Manager. Mr. Exford joins the Mobility Management Team of Brandi Smith, who oversees the City of Watertown program; Sonja Jensen, who oversees the St. Lawrence County program; Heather M. Snow, who oversees the Oswego County program; and Regional Mobility Manager Frank A. Doldo.
Mr. Exford said he is “very excited” to join the VTC Mobility Management Team.
“The expertise of the other members of the team will be invaluable to me as I transition to this position,” he said. “I have experience working with local businesses, human service agencies and also our local officials, so I hope to build on those relationships to be successful in this new role.”
Mr. Exford has served the Volunteer Transportation Center in various capacities since 2013, including roles as Program Director for both Jefferson and Lewis counties. Most recently, he held the position of Director of Expansion Operations – organizing and coordinating volunteers to drive in Erie, Genesee and the Southern Tier. He was also charged with coordinating volunteers in the states of New Hampshire and California, which were conducted remotely from the Watertown office. His responsibilities have consisted of recruiting volunteer drivers, maintaining a daily schedule of trips and communicating with drivers and clients to effectively accommodate transports for our community members.
“The role of a Mobility Manager role is to break down transportation barriers for residents in the county that it serves,” said Mr. Exford. “It’s responsible for developing programs and services to break down those barriers and make the county public transit system sustainable and efficient.”
Jefferson County is one of only two counties in New York State that does not have a public transit system, he noted. Mr. Exford’s focus over the first 12 months of the program will be “to develop and implement a countywide system to get residents that have transportation as a barrier from the county into Watertown and Watertown into the county along with connecting to outside the county in St. Lawrence and Lewis Counties.
Last year, City of Watertown Mobility Manager Brandi Smith brought together more than 50 human service agencies, employers, educators and residents to develop the Jefferson County Coordinated Transportation Plan. The plan was prepared to identify cost-effective approaches to address public transportation gaps; minimize the duplication of transportation services; and help improve the coordination of transportation services for persons with disabilities, older residents, college students and Jefferson County residents seeking access to employment, education, medical appointments, food sources, recreation and social destinations in Jefferson County.
“The recommendations from this plan were to enhance transportation access for the community and provide more cost-effective service,” explained Mr. Exford. “This plan would greatly enhance the well-being of the Jefferson County population and surrounding areas by adding ease of access to essential life needs such as medical, education, food sources and employment.”
When it comes to employment, the benefit of reliable transportation is a two-way street.
“Employers need employees, residents need access to employment,” said Mr. Exford. “Residents need access to food sources, medical appointments, pharmacy and education.”
Education, Mr. Exford said, can include transportation to the Howard G. Sackett Technical Center (BOCES), Jefferson Community College or workshops held throughout the county. He also noted the plan prioritizes how federal and state public transportation resources would be utilized by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, City of Watertown, Jefferson County and third-party vendors.
What a finalized countywide system will look like remains to be seen. However, proposed corridors for the system ultimately would include routes from Gouverneur to Fort Drum to Watertown, Lewis County to Carthage to Watertown, and the Alexandria Bay-Clayton area to Watertown, said Mr. Exford. All routes would have a transfer hub to meet with Watertown Citi Bus so residents can connect and be provided a seamless transfer.
“A countywide transit system would improve reliable access to employment, education, food sources, medical appointments and training opportunities,” said Mr. Exford.
VTC Executive Director Sam Purington agreed.
“Volunteer drivers are great for connecting people with medical appointments,” said Mr. Purington. “However, mass transportation is best for connecting employees with their places of employment and others in our community with education opportunities. A countywide system will be very beneficial to help those we can’t otherwise help with the use of volunteer drivers.”
The success of establishing a system will rely on collaboration among many parties, said Mr. Exford.
“Human service agencies, medical providers, employers, educators and Jefferson County residents will be key in the development of routes to meet their needs,” said Mr. Exford. “And, of course, elected county officials will be the deciding factor when it comes to approving a countywide system.”
Mr. Exford added funding from the New York State Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration will be essential to ensure funding is available to financially support the system.
Ultimately, the proposed countywide system would be operated not by the county, but by a third-party transportation vendor, as in done in areas like Lewis County, where that county contracts with Birnie Bus Service Inc. for its services.
Starting in August, public input sessions will be held throughout Jefferson County to gather information on what residents need access to and the times and days they need access. Once that data has been collected, work can begin on drafting potential routes for a countywide system and, eventually, presenting a formal draft to the Jefferson County Legislature. The goal is to have a countywide system online as early as 2024.
The most important step, though, is getting the community’s input.
“Public transportation services play an important role for people who are unable to drive, including those without access to personal vehicles, children, individuals with disabilities, and older adults,” said Mr. Exford. “To make this system a reality we need everyone to participate.”
For more information about the Jefferson County Mobility Management program and the proposed countywide transit system, contact Mr. Exford at 315-755-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those wishing to view the Jefferson County Coordinated Transportation Plan may do so online at the Watertown-Jefferson County Area Transportation Council website, www.wjctc.org. Click on the “Resources” tab, select “Publications” from the drop down menu and select “Coordinated Plan.” The Watertown-Jefferson County Area Transportation Council’s Transit Study is also viewable at the WJCTC website. Click on the “Projects” tab, select “Transit” from the drop down menu.
Those seeking a copy of either plan via email may also contact Mr. Exford.
ABOUT THE VOLUNTEER TRANSPORTATION CENTER
The Volunteer Transportation Center, Inc. (VTC), established in 1991, drives thousands of miles each year assisting community members in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Counties and beyond. Over the last 30 years, this essential non-profit organization has provided rides to health care appointments, food sources and other critical needs destinations for residents.
In 2021, VTC volunteer drivers provided 26,711 charitable trips over 1,073,435 miles in Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence Counties. Of those miles, 470,002 helped those in Jefferson County, 151,954 in Lewis County, and 451,479 in St. Lawrence County. That equated to approximately $477,679 in mileage reimbursement for our volunteers.
The staff, boards of directors and volunteer drivers look forward to a time when transportation to community activities and services is accessible to all North Country residents regardless of economic or specialized needs. But for now the mission drives on — striving to provide transportation to health, wellness and critical needs destinations utilizing volunteers and mobility management for anyone who has barriers to transportation.
For more information about how you can help the Volunteer Transportation Center, about its upcoming events, or to become a volunteer driver, contact the agency in Jefferson and Lewis Counties at 315-788-0422, in St. Lawrence County at 315-714-2034, in Oswego County at 315-644-6944, or Western New York at 585-250-5030. Volunteers drive their own cars, set their own hours and receive mileage reimbursement but, more importantly, make a difference in the community. To learn more, visit www.volunteertransportationcenter.org.