Breaking Down Transit Barriers in the Heart of Iowa

April 19, 2022
HIRTA is embarking on several projects and programs to better meet the needs of its communities and provide a more equitable transit system. 

Small and rural towns have as diverse communities as their medium and urban counterparts—it just may not be immediately spotted. But for the Heart of Iowa Regional Transit Agency (HIRTA), seeking out the diverse groups of people that make up the communities it serves (seven counties in total) and identifying their various needs is second nature.  

“As a smaller agency, we know that if we do not stay up on things like technology and additional options for people with services, we're going to be left behind and we're still going to be operating like we were 30 years ago, which we know doesn't work for us anymore,” said HIRTA Executive Director Julia Castillo. 

To better understand what does work, HIRTA brought in the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) as a consultant to complete a service redesign project for one of the counties it serves to act as a model for the other six. HIRTA then took this information to develop a new business plan, which was adopted in May 2020.  

“I feel that pushed everything forward into some of the projects that we’ve done now,” shared Brooke Ramsey, business development manager, HIRTA.  

To make some of these projects a reality, HIRTA got creative with how it could leverage additional funding outside of federal dollars. The solution? Establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Heart of Transit, which allows HIRTA to apply for grant opportunities not available to typical government agencies.  

Now, HIRTA’s focusing on programs that are breaking down transportation barriers for the communities’ most vulnerable riders, especially those who need access to healthcare and human services. 

Removing Barriers to Access Healthcare  

One program that is enhancing access to human services is the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). HIRTA submitted a grant application through AmeriCorps Seniors to start the volunteer program in Madison and Marion Counties to meet its goal of having an RSVP in every county with 75 volunteer drivers each. 

The program tackles transit barriers by recruiting people 55 and older to be volunteer drivers and provide trips for people to the pharmacy, grocery shopping and medical appointments—another initiative HIRTA has been addressing.  

“We’re very aware because we have been reviewing those plans that the health departments do in all seven of our counties of what they say are transportation barriers,” said Castillo. “What we found was people will forget they don’t have transportation, and the day of their appointment, they’ll remember they have an appointment but no way to get there.” 

With the help of grant funding and a new mobility coordinator, HIRTA developed its Do You Have Transportation? campaign to work with appointment schedulers, like at medical facilities, to ask the appointment goer if they have transportation, and if they do not, help them identify options to get there. Now, HIRTA is continuing its efforts to increase access to transportation for healthcare with its Health Connector Project: An Inclusive Mobility Experience from Beginning to End, which is funded through a contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation under its Complete Trip – ITS4US Deployment Program from 2021. The objective is to provide enhanced and equal access by integrating the scheduling and management of healthcare appointments and transportation, with a focus on underserved communities. 

“Here’s this opportunity for taking that [campaign] a step further and how can we get healthcare facilities, when they schedule an appointment for someone, that they can also schedule transportation,” said Castillo.  

The overall goal of the program is to increase mobility options across transportation modes while tackling the obstacles of planning and completing trips. The program is starting in Dallas County with the hope of expanding regionwide and will focus on rural, veterans, persons with disabilities, low-income, older adults and persons with limited English proficiency.  

Currently, the program is in the concept development phase, the first of three phases that will last about 12 months. Ramsey shares so far, the work has been intense as the team has created 14 different documents that lay the foundation “for other transit systems to implement something similar.” 

Technology Powers Solutions for Independence 

The project team recently submitted the phase two application for its Healthcare Connector project, which moves it from a contract to a grant. Phases two and three would involve developing the software that is needed, implementing the software into the services and then operating it for a period—all of which could take another three years. In the end, Ramsey shares the final product for end users will have a web-based interface and/or a mobile app, depending on the type of device used. To be more inclusive, they’re also creating an option so facilities can schedule transportation for riders who don’t use technology. 

“I think this project will appeal to people who have never used public transportation before, and that’s because we’re looking at this with a wide lens and recognizing we live in a multimodal society,” said Ramsey.  

To make this a complete trip solution, the project will also include a wayfinding function, something that will be helpful for those navigating large medical campuses that have multiple buildings and entrances. The goal is to give the user more freedom by making the trip experience less overwhelming and to create a product that is inclusive to everyone, despite their abilities or preferred languages.  

“If you have a visual impairment, this gives you greater independence. It’ll give you the tools to find an elevator, an escalator or a specific office within the building,” said Ramsey. “My favorite part is the translation because it will make people realize that public transportation really can be used by everybody.” 

Another way HIRTA gives riders more freedom is through its automated fare collection system. With HIRTA serving many school kids and elderly people, ensuring they had the proper funds to ride the system was sometimes a challenge. Instead of needing exact change, caregivers, parents or riders can upload funds to an online account. People can also board the vehicles and give the driver cash, regardless of having exact change. The driver can accept the cash and enter the information into a tablet, which then goes to the person’s account, allowing them to use the remaining balance later.  

“Catering to caregivers has been a huge priority for me because we want to try to give people as much independence as they can have for as long as they can have it,” said Castillo. 

Ramsey agrees, adding that they evaluate solutions with a multitude of demographics in mind.  

“We really tried to make sure that the solutions we put in place can be used by all different types of populations. We’re working on things that help make folks with limited English proficiency more accessible, we focus on helping veterans and people with disabilities; really every different type of demographic that we have within our service area,” said Ramsey.  

No One Left Behind 

In addition to its limited English proficiency options with its fare collection system, HIRTA is expanding upon these efforts thanks to funds recently awarded by the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT). The project is called Flex Connect and involves hiring a bilingual mobility coordinator who will specifically focus on the Latino community to better help them understand how to ride HIRTA.  

“One of our communities is 32 percent Latino, and in doing our analysis, we realized that only about one to two percent [of Latino people] ride HIRTA,” said Castillo. “Looking at why, it comes down to the unfamiliarity of having to call ahead for demand response, and then having to give personal information or to be picked up at your door. So, we looked at what we can do to better serve that community.” 

They decided to add various scheduled stops around the area where most of them live, creating a type of deviated fixed route, so people can either go from door to door or wait at a stop without having to give out any personal information. Part of the project also includes an optional Social Determinants of Health survey where passengers can ride free for a year if they complete this prior to using transit and again at the end of the program to evaluate how transportation impacted their lives.  

For this project, HIRTA is working closely with the city of Perry, the Dallas County Health Department, Perry City Manager and Dallas County Hospital, among others.  

“I think [this] shows a good connection to the community itself in making sure that we are delivering the service the way that they need it, the way that they want it. We can talk about how we do things, but it may not be the way [riders] want them done,” said Ramsey.  

While Flex Connect is a new project, HIRTA’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goes back a handful of years and has touched multiple aspects of the agency. Castillo explains they started by considering if the communities saw HIRTA as the agency saw itself. Even though the agency is inclusive, aims to service everyone and cares about diversity, it didn’t have anything directly communicating this. So, it got to work, creating a diversity, equity and inclusion plan and mission statement; putting up stickers inside buses that say hate and harassment will not be tolerated; and changing the equal opportunity statement on job postings to be at the top and more personal.  

“The biggest thing [I’ve heard] for people in rural areas is we don’t have any diversity. Well, there is. Look at who you’re serving, and if you have a group of people that aren’t on [the service], then that’s who you’re missing,” said Castillo. “They're in your community; you have to figure out where they're at and why you're not serving them.” 

With this in mind, HIRTA was awarded a grant from the Iowa Developmental Disability Council and Iowa DOT to evaluate how it serves people with disabilities and how the agency could do so more equitably. HIRTA worked with Easterseals’ project action using the Accessible Transportation Community Initiative. The project created a coalition of community partners including riders, human service agencies, county and city officials, healthcare providers and other stakeholders to work on barriers and improvements for accessing transit.  

With its project partners, HIRTA developed three main goals and objectives, as well as an action plan. For example, HIRTA created new inclusive educational and marketing materials for social media, print and online that featured people with development and physical disabilities. HIRTA also created materials that cater to specific disabilities, such as its large-print brochures, translated options and educational materials on how to interact with low vision and blind passengers.  

Making It Happen 

Castillo shares many of these projects and programs would not have been possible without the support of HIRTA’s Board of Directors. From approving the new business plan to the grant programs that funded the Flex Connect and Health Connector, Castillo says the board members are always ready to research, ask questions and give input.  

Ramsey and Castillo also agree this is how the entire HIRTA staff operate, adding that people don’t work within departments, the departments work within the people. And that they’re able to accomplish as much as they do because they created a plan, started with the smaller steps and have the commitment to make it happen.  

“We do this because we want to make life easier and better and more accessible. We want to give people the freedom to move around their own communities that they've chosen to live in. And just because they've chosen to live in a rural community, doesn't mean that they should be less than or get served less or have less resources,” said Castillo. 

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.