ARPA funding reimburses Senior Resource Center after long search for new ADA-accessible vans

photo by: Senior Resource Center for Douglas County

Senior Wheels driver Mike Riley stands in front of one of two ADA vans recently purchased by the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County.

When the COVID-19 pandemic snarled supply chains, the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County had a big problem: Two of the ADA-accessible vans it uses to transport seniors to doctor’s appointments urgently needed to be replaced.

Wheelchair-accessible vehicles were being snatched off the market almost as quickly as they appeared, said Megan Poindexter, the Senior Resource Center’s executive director. And although the center had secured grants from the Kansas Department of Transportation to help pay for new ADA-accessible vehicles, that wouldn’t be much help if there were no new vehicles available.

After failed attempts to buy new vans with the grant money, Poindexter said the center was forced to make a tough decision: pulling more than $100,000 out of its own reserve funds in December 2021 and January 2022 to buy gently used vans instead.

“We took a leap of faith as an organization and made these two really big purchases that we had not been able to plan for — we couldn’t plan for — but we really, really needed in order to meet our mission of providing safe, reliable transportation for seniors in Douglas County,” Poindexter said.

But now, because of the American Rescue Plan Act, the Senior Resource Center’s finances have fully recovered from that leap of faith. The center made a request for $118,000, the amount it had spent on the vans, and the Douglas County Commission granted that request in July. The center was the only organization in the county to request and receive ARPA funding to cover a purchase it had already made.

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The senior transportation program, known as Senior Wheels, has been a lifeline for older residents of Douglas County since it began in the late 1970s. Its fleet of seven vans provides seniors with thousands of rides each year.

And with that level of activity, it’s not a surprise when vehicles break down, Poindexter said.

“As we all know from our own personal vehicle experiences, vehicles just don’t last forever,” Poindexter said. “They just wear out. Our Senior Wheels vehicles get a lot of wear and tear. … A lot of that is pretty stop-and-go traffic, which we also know is harder on cars than other types of driving, so the vans we have just get a heck of a workout.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senior Resource Center was already reviewing its fleet and realizing some vans needed replacement. Poindexter said one of the vehicles was completely worn out, and another was just “limping along.”

It was critical to replace the vans, Poindexter said, because Senior Wheels rides are almost entirely used to get riders to medical care. There aren’t limitations on using the program for other reasons, but the majority of riders are using it to get to their doctor’s appointments.

“So then when you start to zoom out a little bit more, you’re talking about a very big impact on our senior community, that if they can’t get to those doctor’s appointments because there are no vehicles in the community that are able to provide transportation for a person in a wheelchair … you can really start to expand upon the impact that having safe, reliable, affordable, specialized transportation makes on all of us,” Poindexter said.

So the center secured two Kansas Department of Transportation grants through a program that pays for 80% of the cost of new ADA-accessible vehicles.

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But then the pandemic hit — and it made the grants almost impossible to use.

Because of supply chain issues, new vehicles were extremely scarce, Poindexter said, which meant that buying even one new van through the grant program would be impossible indefinitely. And the need wasn’t going away.

So the center decided to look for used vehicles and use its own money to purchase one of those, instead.

“We realized that we couldn’t wait for the entirety of the vehicle manufacturing world to meet our needs,” Poindexter said. “We needed to start looking for some gently used wheelchair-accessible vehicles now, because our senior riders needed rides now.”

Even used vans were scarce, she said. Vehicles were selling almost immediately after coming onto the market. A van would come on the market, and the center would go to its board and get approval to purchase it — but by then the vehicle would be gone.

Eventually, she said, the center couldn’t wait any longer, and the board allowed the center to take the reserve money out in advance and spend it immediately when the vans came on the market. The center found two vans in December 2021 and January 2022 through United Access, a national dealership, and snagged them at a total cost of $118,000 before they could be purchased by other buyers.

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The gently used vans are now integrated into the Senior Resource Center’s fleet, and Poindexter said they are a great help so far.

But the work’s not quite done yet to get the fleet fully up to speed. Poindexter said the center wants to replace two more vans with new vehicles that will provide services in Eudora and Baldwin City.

She said the center will eventually be able to use those KDOT grants to help out with those purchases, but it’s still up in the air when exactly that will be feasible.

“It’s a little bit troubling,” Poindexter said. “It’s a little bit worrisome, and we have to have faith — because we don’t have any actual control over any of it — that this will turn itself around. Things are getting better; we know that.”


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