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WISPIRG Foundation
Capital Times
Mike Ivey

Millions of aging baby boomers getting behind the wheel of a car is enough to frighten any demographer or traffic cop.

But with funding for local transit service facing some $14 million in cuts in the proposed state budget, a new report warns that seniors may soon not have safe alternatives to get around.

The first baby boomers turn 65 this year and in another four years more than half of the seniors in Wisconsin will live in communities without viable alternatives to driving, warns Bruce Speight of the Wisconsin Public Research Institute.

A report from WISPIRG released Wednesday identified several communities in the state with little or no public transit options. It estimated that by 2015, 95 percent of seniors in Kenosha, 82 percent in Janesville and 75 percent in Eau Claire will have no access to transit.

In addition to the proposed cuts in transit funding in Gov. Scott Walker's budget, the Joint Finance Committee has repealed regional transit authorities or RTAs and the ability of local governments to levy a sales tax to fund regional transit service.

"It's a tragedy that funding for public transportation is getting cut when the need for public transit is set to take off with this demographic explosion," says Speight in a statement.

The WISPIRG report is drawn from a national report titled "Aging in Place, Stuck without Options" which ranks metro areas by the percentage of seniors with poor access to public transportation and analyzes other data on aging and transportation.

Eight Wisconsin communities are identified as places with limited transit options. Madison, where 6 percent of bus riders are over age 65, was not included on the list.

"As much as older Americans want to age comfortably in the homes and communities they love -- and nine out of 10 do -- they fear being stuck at home when they don't drive," says Lisa Lamkins, AARP Wisconsin's Federal Issues Advocacy Director in a statement.

Unfortunately, the pattern of suburban development based around the automobile will leave millions of older people potentially stranded, she says. That could affect their ability to shop for groceries, visit the doctor or meet with friends.

Metro Atlanta ranked worst for transit options among metro areas with 3 million or more people. Kansas City is worst for metros of 1 to 3 million, followed by Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Nashville and Raleigh-Durham.

In some smaller areas -- like Hamilton, Ohio -- 100 percent of seniors are projected to live without access to public transportation.

The report notes that with only a small portion of older American relocating, many "naturally occurring retirement communities" are developing as seniors age in their same homes. Nationally, 79 percent of those 65 and older reside in car-dependent suburban or rural communities, according to the report.

"The baby boom generation grew up and reared their own children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile," says John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America and co-chair of Transportation for America in a statement.

 "What happens when people in this largest generation ever, with the longest predicted lifespan ever, outlive their ability to drive for everything? That's one of the questions we set out to answer in this report."

The report calls for increased funding for buses, trains, vanpools, paratransit and ridesharing along with a "complete streets" policy that ensures streets or intersections around transit stops are safe for seniors.

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