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January 31, 2014

Shift in Medicaid funding forces cuts to Otsego Express routes

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Four Otsego Express bus routes will be trimmed back or eliminated March 1 as a result of the state Health Department shifting Medicaid funds away from public transit systems, officials said Thursday.

Otsego Express is operated under contract with the county by Birnie Bus. The transit system is managed by the Otsego County Planning Department.

“It is unfortunate that the public transportation system, as it currently is scheduled, is not sustainable with the loss of Medicaid funding that was experienced on Sept. 1,” said Psalm Wyckoff, senior planner for the Planning Department. “It is regrettable that service cuts have been necessary.”

Among the routes affected will be Route 1, which runs between Richfield Springs and Oneonta by way of Cooperstown. Service will no longer be provided between Cooperstown and Richfield Springs. And there will be a new schedule for service between Cooperstown and Oneonta. The new schedule will be posted at www.otsegoexpress.com.

For Route 5, running from Oneonta to East Worcester, mid-day service will only be provided on Tuesdays and Fridays. Scrapped altogether will be Routes 7 and 8, which ferries passengers between Cherry Valley and Cooperstown.

Also being discontinued is the Otsego Express Dial-A-Ride service.

The Medicaid funding shift directed by state bureaucrats in Albany is having similar impacts on rural transit systems across the state, officials said.

Public transit systems such as Otsego Express have been historically financed by combination of federal and state funds, the fares paid by riders and Medicaid reimbursements. On Sept. 1, the Health Department implemented a new system for Medicaid transportation to doctors’ offices, relying on a centralized broker for multiple counties.

Under the new state-backed program, Wyckoff said, public transportation is not being utilized to the extent that it had been, resulting in a significant financial loss for some local transit systems. Medicaid transportation is now being shifted to other modes, primarily taxis, she said.

The contract to run Otsego express now comes to $532,065 a year. Starting March 1, as a result of the cuts that are being put into place, the contract will be cut to $458,333.

Wyckoff said in selecting the routes that would be scrapped or scaled back, there was an effort to target those that had the smallest number of riders and cost the most to operate.

“We tried to minimize the impact to the public as much as we could,” she said. Ridership numbers for the various routes involved in the changes were not immediately available, she said.

Peggy Bush, terminal manager for Otsego Express in Richfield Springs, said she commends the Planning Department for making the schedule changes in a way that would have the least impact on those that use the service.

“This came from the top in Albany,” said Bush, who is employed by Birnie Bus. “There is going to be some impact, but most people won’t realize there will be a change in service. Fortunately, there is plenty of other forms of public transportation available. 

The Planning Department is urging anyone with comments or questions on the schedule changes to contact the department at 547-4225.