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Public transportation is key to boosting health for aging New Mexicans

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BY STAN COOPER
AARP volunteer and New Mexico Association board member

Most of us take for granted that we can wake up each day, get in our car, drive to work, drive home, drive to the grocery store or to a movie, and get wherever we want to go. But for some of us, the time will come when we can no longer drive a car and we must give up the keys.

The loss of a vehicle can often lead to cases of isolation, which causes a decrease in physical activity, and mental engagement. People are no longer able to participate in everyday activities like visiting friends, going to social events or church because they no longer have a way to get there. Individuals can’t rely on friends and family to make up the difference because they have their own lives and schedules.

For these individuals, public transportation will provide a vital role toward keeping older adults connected and engaged in their communities.

That is why it is critical that the state of New Mexico take a more active role in funding public transportation. New Mexico has long been a car-centered state, and our wide expanses of rural areas make establishing a viable public transportation system both daunting and expensive. But, it is time to make such systems more of a priority. We cannot continue to rely solely on federal and local dollars to fund public transportation.

Public Transportation in New Mexico is funded by three sources: federal, state and local. We are missing the state. The state of New Mexico does not allocate general fund money into transportation, and it’s time for the state to step up and act as a partner in public transit, along with the federal and local government partners.

Having worked for AARP for 34 years, I am a passionate advocate for public transportation in New Mexico. AARP believes that in order for a community to be more livable – a place people can live and grow as they age – providing good public transportation is a key component.

In addition to providing freedom and independence, public transportation can help improve the health of older individuals. Research shows that staying connected and engaged in one’s community boosts an older person’s physical and mental health. Public transportation allows people to keep their “connection” to the world around them by getting them to and from appointments, allowing them to visit friends, and social events.

We also need to do more to educate people about the transportation options available to them. While many individuals seem to be aware of senior center vans that could transport them to get a hot meal at a senior center or to the doctor, quite a few were unaware of programs like dial-a-ride funded by the Federal Transit Administration grants managed by the New Mexico Department of Transportation. There are options for seniors to stay connected to their community and many can be found through the New Mexico Aging and Disability Resource Center (1-800-432-2080) or nmresourcedirectory.org.

The New Mexico Transit Association, a non-profit organization of public and private transportation providers in rural and urban New Mexico, advocates for increased state funding for public transportation to expand these programs and offer more options for seniors and for other riders. While there are some existing options, increased funding would greatly improve public transit with additional routes, services and hours.

Continuing to expand and improve public transportation not only helps older individuals but our communities as a whole – helping to connect people to vital services, everyday activities and social events across demographics. Increased funding for public transportation would be a wise investment by our state leaders.