By MADDY VITALE
Cape May County already offers Fare Free Transportation rides to seniors, the disabled, veterans and low-income residents who need to get to appointments, shopping and other places.
Next week, a trial run of Fare Free Now begins. The service will give all Ocean City residents the ability to get to wherever they need to go on the island at no cost. All they have to do is fill out a short application and once signed up, they can call for a ride or use the Fare Free Now app, explained Fare Free Transportation Assistant Director Katie Hollenback.
“If you live in Ocean City and just want to get a slice of pizza, we will bring you and pick you up,” Hollenback said.
Both she and Fare Free Transportation Director Dan Mulraney are testing out the service next week. Instead of having to arrange for the ride three days in advance, the pilot program will allow riders to simply pick up the phone or their electronic device to order a ride.
“We are super-excited about the pilot program. Next week we plan to get out on the roads. We have a bus and a driver, and we will book trips for ourselves and call the main office. We want to make sure it works, and it is as easy, streamlined and flawless as possible,” Hollenback explained. “Next week will be the final test of the system and hopefully, very soon after that, it will be open to the residents of Ocean City.”
Fare Free Now will be available to residents Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Hollenback noted that currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the buses are operating at a limited capacity.
She emphasized that all of the drivers constantly disinfect the buses, wear masks and, when necessary, wear gloves.
The free ride-sharing program is available for anyone 18 years old and up. All of the vehicles are wheelchair accessible.
“We will put your wheelchair on and lift you into the bus,” Hollenback noted.
The pilot program was initially going to be launched around March, but the coronavirus stalled the project.
Meanwhile, Fare Free Transportation continued offering service to county residents in need of medical services. Some of the clients are on dialysis, others are undergoing cancer treatments.
Fare Free provides an average of 110,000 trips per year for riders throughout the county. Of that number, 1,200 trips every three months are by Ocean City residents.
Bus drivers were there to pick them up, drop them off and come back for them throughout the COVID-19 crisis and continue to be, Hollenback said.
She explained the importance of both Fare Free Now and Fare Free.
“For some of our clients, our drivers are the only people they will see in a day,” she pointed out. “It means a lot to people. People become very attached to their drivers. They have little crews on their bus rides. They form friendships with the other riders. It is a pretty cool thing.”
Cape May County Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, of Ocean City, who oversees transportation, is closely involved with the county’s Fare Free Transportation program.
Hayes said she is looking forward to a successful program in Ocean City.
“Basically, Fare Free – you have to move with the times. The way we did it before you had to call three days before, you had to arrange appointments. We are experimenting with the program that is Uber-like and are just happy to be able to provide the service.”
The county is utilizing funds already in its budget to get the service underway.
And like Hollenback, Hayes emphasized the relationships between the drivers and the riders.
“I have Fare Free drivers who provide the service for the riders and then go back on their own time to mow their lawn. They get attached to the people they serve,” she noted. “This is a department of people who really, really care about people.”
To sign up for Fare Free or Fare Free Now or for more information call Cape May County Fare Free Transportation at (609) 889-3700.