Kemp Frazier held out a stuffed animal to the wailing 4-year-old beside him.
Frazier and his son, Caleb, stood outside the Frederick County TransIT center in downtown Frederick, red-faced and shirts darkened with circles of sweat from the 90-degree August afternoon. As he attempted to soothe his son, Frazier gazed toward the street, searching for the Emmitsburg-bound shuttle that was supposed to arrive 15 minutes earlier.
Finally, the white bus emblazoned with the green TransIT logo rounds the corner and pulls up on South East Street.
The father and son boarded, along with a handful of others. Once inside the air-conditioned bus, Caleb stopped crying and silently clutched the stuffed animal to his face.
By the time the shuttle dropped them off on DePaul Street in Emmitsburg, it was 5:15 p.m., nearly 10 hours after Frazier left home that morning.
Without a car, that shuttle is the only way Frazier can get from Emmitsburg to his son’s day care in Spring Ridge. Which means what could be a one-hour round trip by car instead takes the entire day.
He is not the only one for whom this is the case.
The Emmitsburg-Thurmont shuttle runs twice daily from Monday through Friday. There’s one trip that departs from downtown at 6:30 a.m. and a second at 4:15 p.m.
It’s the lowest level of service of TransIT Services of Frederick County’s shuttles and buses, according to Nancy Norris, the county’s transit division director.
By comparison, riders who want to travel in and around the city of Frederick have nine different buses to choose from, some with multiple trips per hour.
The reason for the relative lack of rural transportation options has to do, in part, with funding, Norris said.
There are separate federal funds that pay for transportation service in the urban and rural areas of the county.
Funding for rural transportation, from the Federal Transit Administration’s Formula Grants for Rural Areas, has remained flat for at least the last 15 years, Norris said. The $306,792 annual grant — a cost shared among federal, state and county governments at a 50-25-25 split — is just enough to pay for the three rural shuttles, Norris said.
In addition to the Emmitsburg-Thurmont route, there is a shuttle that runs four times per day to Jefferson and Brunswick. A third shuttle, part of the Meet the MARC program, runs from Frederick to the Point of Rocks MARC station.
“We would love to provide more service,” Norris said. “It’s a funding issue.”
Even if there were more funding, Norris wasn’t convinced there would be enough riders to justify more shuttles to and from northern Frederick County. The twice-daily option now averages about 17 people per trip, based on the 4,236 riders in fiscal 2017.
When TransIT added a fifth, Friday-only trip on its Brunswick-Jefferson shuttle earlier this year, intended to serve residents who needed to go to Frederick to buy groceries in the absence of a nearby store, ridership was low, she said. The route was canceled after six months.
“It wasn’t fiscally responsible,” Norris said.
Still, the relationship between rural poverty and lack of public transportation has gained increasing attention among residents, government groups and service agencies.
Northern Frederick County residents like Frazier who rely on public transportation often end up making a daylong trip for one thing: a doctor’s visit, a social services appointment, a hearing in court. Others who take the shuttle to and from work must align their schedules precisely with the shuttle times.
At the same time, those who opt to own a vehicle rather than deal with limited public transportation can end up pouring so much money into vehicle costs that they sacrifice other necessities such as food or health care.
Maryland families saw a 27 percent increase in transportation costs in an eight-year period, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. As of 2014, a Maryland family of four — two adults and two children — spent $722 per month on fuel, maintenance and repair costs for private vehicles.
In contrast, public transportation cost that same family $371 monthly, the survey showed. But the lack of public transportation options in most of Maryland, including Frederick County, renders that savings opportunity unrealistic.
And for people already struggling to make ends meet, high transportation costs can exacerbate those struggles. This was the case for about 28,500 Frederick County households in 2014, according to a report published earlier this year by the United Ways of Maryland.
The report was intended to highlight the plight of residents who earn above the federal poverty level but not enough to afford basic costs of living, based on an independent, by-county cost-of-living calculation determined using various federal databases.
Thirty-two percent of the 89,084 Frederick County families in 2014 earned less than the $61,224 needed to afford basic necessities, according to the report. Transportation costs swallowed about 14 percent of this survival budget, based on the estimated $889 cost for private vehicle gas and maintenance.
The report painted an even bleaker picture for residents who live in the rural outskirts of the county. Emmitsburg topped the list with 55 percent of the 1,097 households in 2014 earning less than this $61,224 survival estimate, the report stated. In Thurmont, 43 percent of the 2,543 households in 2014 fell below this threshold.
Both towns also face higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes than the countywide averages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2015 estimates.
A census tract in Emmitsburg and a second in Brunswick were recently identified as “equity emphasis areas” by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Transportation Planning Board.
The board has identified census tracts throughout D.C., Maryland and Virginia with a disproportionately high percentage of low-income or minority residents as part of federal mandates related to equity and environmental justice. The board is currently reviewing how, if at all, its long-range transportation plans might hurt residents who live in the identified equity emphasis areas, according to Sergio Ritacco, a transportation planner for the organization.
The time and inconvenience of the trip can, in turn, exacerbate the socioeconomic challenges that might be why these riders rely on public transportation in the first place.
It’s unclear whether lack of public transportation can cause rural poverty, or simply exacerbates an already dire situation. But wherever the culprit lies, the end result is the same: Low-income residents of rural areas are losing out.
Frazier wasn’t too bothered by the length of his trip. He does it only every two weeks — he shares custody of his son with his ex-wife, he said.
But for others, the lack of transportation options posed more severe consequences.
Joshua Fisher, who sat behind Frazier on the bus, recalled when he missed a scheduled appearance at the Frederick County Courthouse a year ago. He took the shuttle from his home in Thurmont to downtown, which meant he was 20 minutes late.
“They were really mad,” he said. “They were about ready to lock me up or something.”
Luckily, he explained what happened and resolved the situation, he said.
Still without a car — he hasn’t been able to afford a new one since his last vehicle was totaled in a crash, he said — he has continued to use the shuttle to go to job interviews and doctor’s appointments.
The northern reaches of the county also suffer from a lack of facilities such as doctors and social services. Seton Center in Emmitsburg is one of the few places that offer some of these services — heating assistance, food, a dental clinic and a thrift store among them.
But that still leaves a wide swath of services unavailable locally — food stamps, homeless shelters and specialty medical testing, to name a few.
“It’s a real concern,” said Sister Martha Beaudoin, administrator of Seton Center. “It can put them in a bad light with different agencies because they can’t get there, or have to cancel.”
Missy Shank, who has been without a car on and off for many years, used to walk the 8 miles to her doctor’s office. But when it was raining or snowing, she would cancel, she said. Shank lives just outside of Emmitsburg in Pennsylvania, but does most of her errands and uses services in Emmitsburg, including Seton Center.
“It got to the point where I canceled so many doctor’s appointments my doctor won’t see me anymore,” she said.
She last saw a doctor in 2012.
TransIT riders who rely on public transportation to get to and from work — about 40 percent of riders on all county TransIT buses and shuttles, according to the most recent ridership survey from fiscal 2016 — also face challenges.
Fisher found that getting to interviews on time was problematic with limited route options. He eventually found a job just a five-minute walk from his home, at Burger King.
But scheduling medical appointments that require taking an entire day off from work to get to downtown Frederick can make things “a little hectic,” he said.
Frazier, who had recently started a job as a dishwasher at Mount St. Mary’s University, said his boss was fine with him taking the day off to pick his son up from day care.
Jarde Lindsey also didn’t mind taking the shuttle to get from her Frederick home to her job at RR Donnelley in Thurmont, where she works a night shift as an equipment operator.
But on weekends, when the Thurmont-Emmitsburg shuttle doesn’t run, she has to take a taxi to get to and from work. The $80 round-trip cost is significant, she admitted. She gives plasma twice per week to try to earn a little extra money.
Asked if the distance and lack of transportation options would make her want to find a new job, she said no.
“I needed this job,” she said. “And I like it. You got to do what you got to do.”
Filling the void
Several of the riders on the Thurmont-Emmitsburg shuttle said adding another, midday trip could make it easier for them to get places they need to go.
Shank started a petition advocating for just that as part of a class she took at Seton Center.
The class, Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World, challenges participants to help come up with solutions to their own problems. When Shank took the class two years ago, she was struck by the number of fellow Seton Center clients who faced problems with lack of public transportation.
“It seems crazy,” she said of the lack of buses from downtown Frederick to Thurmont and Emmitsburg. “It’s just a lot of missed opportunities.”
Shank originally submitted her petition to TransIT, but was told to redirect her efforts to the government officials who control funding. She has continued to gather signatures — she was up to about 300 as of Tuesday, she said — and endorsement letters from area service agencies.
She planned to submit the request to county government within the next month.
But a third, or even a fourth trip for the Emmitsburg-Thurmont shuttle doesn’t solve the entire problem.
Others are considering alternatives.
One such offering is a gas voucher program run by a consortium of northern Frederick County churches, known as the Thurmont Ministerium. The program helps residents travel to faraway medical appointments by giving out gas “vouchers” — essentially gift cards to a gas station — to cover the cost of fuel needed to make the trip, according to the Rev. Laura Robeson, who supervises the program. Robeson is pastor of Apples United Church of Christ in Thurmont, which is part of the Ministerium.
Robeson explained how lack of area doctors, particularly specialists, and appointments that require medical testing, require residents to travel long distances. The cost to get there in itself can be a burden.
“People have told me, ‘I either eat, or I go to the doctor,’” Robeson said. “It makes choices difficult.”
Participants must have a car of their own or access to a friend’s or relative’s car to be eligible. They must also show proof of an appointment — an email reminder or phone message confirming the appointment will suffice.
Robeson estimated the group spends $300 per month, which helps 25 to 30 people depending on the distance of their trips.
Robeson was confident the need was greater than what the funds allowed them to provide. She wasn’t sure how much public transportation could fill in the gap.
“Some of these folks are not as likely as city dwellers to take a bus,” she said. “They might be kind of reluctant to do that.”
Several city-based service agencies plan to expand some of their programs into the outer reaches of the county. A free tax preparation program run through the United Way of Frederick County’s Prosperity Center will include an office in Emmitsburg in the next tax season, according to Malcolm Furgol, United Way’s community impact director.
The service was offered at two locations during the 2017 tax season, both in the city of Frederick.
Another Prosperity Center program that provides credit counseling and workshops to low-income residents will also add a satellite location in northern Frederick County, Furgol said. The Credit Cafe program, run by the Interfaith Housing Alliance, currently operates at the Bernard W. Brown Community Center in downtown Frederick.
“We’re trying to bring more things to people instead of always making them come to us,” Furgol said.
Furgol also named options for remote services as a way to eliminate transportation issues altogether. For example, the Frederick County Department of Social Services, as part of its move out of downtown, plans to offer more by-phone appointments and those through its online portal to serve clients for whom the new location is not accessible.
Some of these services come at a cost, Furgol acknowledged. But there’s a price to pay for doing nothing, too.
It costs in hospital visits and homeless shelters, in food stamps and unemployment benefits, all the taxpayer-funded services that rural residents are even more likely to need when vehicle costs eat up their income and public transportation options are scarce.
There’s an emotional cost, too.
“These people ... they kind of feel like they’ve gotten left out of the rest of society,” Robeson said. “They feel like they’ve been forgotten about.”