End of an era: Operation Wheels to shut down July 31

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:14

    Warwick-Nearly a quarter century ago, Operation Wheels was born. It provided transportation to Warwick's seniors and handicapped residents with little cost to the passengers. Today, Operation Wheels takes Warwick, Florida, and Greenwood Lake residents to the Galleria Mall, Wal-Mart, and other retail locations in Middletown and Monroe. That is about to change. "It came to a point, we just couldn't handle it anymore," said Rev. Scott Eding, pastor of the Warwick Reformed Church and chairman of Operation Wheels. The service has been operating in the red for several years, according to Eding, and is totally dependent on grants. A large gift from the late Martha Skorepa allowed the Ecumenical Council, which operates the bus service, to purchase a new bus just a few years ago. But operating expenses continue to rise. "Good Shepherd bailed us out once," Eding said. "The Warwick Savings Foundation gave us a grant. The Warwick Reformed Church did it this year." It gets more difficult every year, however, to meet the expenses. "Insurance and gas just keep getting higher," Eding said, "and the grant money is not coming in." Operation Wheels is funded through the New York State and Orange County Office for the Aging, as well as through donations to United Way of Orange County. The town runs Dial-A-Bus, which provides transportation within Warwick for a small fee, and now runs outside of Warwick into Goshen once a week and has a fixed route service that runs to Monroe. Funding for Dial-A-Bus comes through the county government and grants. The difference between Dial-A-Bus and Operation Wheels, besides their funding, is that Operation Wheels goes to specific places outside of town on specified days. Passengers board in Warwick and do not have to transfer to another bus in order to get to Middletown or Monroe. While one of the town's buses does go outside of the town, passengers must transfer to another bus to head to Middletown or certain spots in Monroe. This matters to many riders and their families. "My mother is a very independent 90-year-old," said Evelyn Zambrana of her mom, a Burt Farms resident for the past two decades. "She has never driven. She walks everywhere. But she loves her trip to the Galleria and Wal-Mart each week. She doesn't want to take a transfer trolley-she worries she'll miss the connection or she won't be able to manage with her packages. She is very nervous about that." Zambrana said the loss of Operation Wheels is more than just the loss of a bus service-it is taking away the independence many seniors enjoy. "This is my mom's independence," Zambrana said. "I certainly don't mind taking her places. I do it often. But she likes going on her own and now she won't be able to do it." It was not an easy decision to make. After Eding and the committee realized they could not operate the service the way it had been going, they approached the town to take it over. "We just don't have the resources right now," said town Supervisor Michael Sweeton. "We looked at our budget and spoke to our Dial-A-Bus coordinator. We just can't do it with the structure that is in place." Dial-A-Bus is a town transportation system. It travels just within town limits. The town has an intermunicipal agreement with the Town of Goshen, allowing one bus to travel to Goshen to drop off passengers for the trolley. The town's fixed route bus does go directly to Woodbury Common, where a loop bus takes passengers to Kohl's plaza and Wal-Mart. Sweeton said the town did an initial cost analysis and found it would cost $20,000 per year to take over the Operation Wheels service. "Besides having no authority to travel to Middletown, we would have to come up with more money, too," Sweeton said. Which is not what Zambrana wants to hear. "I think it's very sad that such a prominent town like Warwick can't do this," she said. "We should cater to our senior citizens. We have skate parks and playgrounds for the young. The arts festival. Warwick offers so many things. We can do so much on any given day and yet we can't give this service to our senior citizens." The town can get riders to most places Operation Wheels currently goes to, Sweeton added. It just won't be a non-stop ride getting there.