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Local Buses Kept Rolling During COVID-19

Braddock-based non-profit has provided 1.5 million rides

By Ann Belser
The Tube City Almanac
March 19, 2021
Posted in: Liberty Borough News, McKeesport and Region News, North Versailles Twp. News, White Oak News

A Heritage Community Transportation bus pauses on Braddock Avenue in Braddock. The non-profit group connects residents of Mon Valley neighborhoods to main Port Authority bus routes and has provided 1.5 million rides. (Submitted photo courtesy Heritage Community Initiatives)

A year ago, when the state shut down all but essential services, a Braddock-based nonprofit found that one of its services could not stop and the others were more vital than ever.

Paula McWilliams, CEO of Heritage Community Initiatives, said the bus service her organization operates, Heritage Community Transportation, was needed to make sure that workers in eastern communities, including Braddock, Liberty, McKeesport, North Versailles Twp., Port Vue and White Oak, could get to their jobs at hospitals such as Forbes Regional, UPMC McKeesport and UPMC East.

The Heritage buses, which are 14-passenger vans, operate on three fixed routes. They had to be modified for transporting workers and senior citizens who needed to get groceries and to medical appointments while keeping passengers and drivers safe.

The Heritage buses, which charge 25 cents a ride, are often how workers get to their jobs or to Port Authority bus routes that are too far to walk to.

A student in the Heritage Out of School Time, or HOST, program participates in remote learning. (Submitted photo courtesy Heritage Community Initiatives)

At the same time the organization was also updating health and safety protocols to reopen the organization’s daycare, 4 Kids Early Learning Center, the after school program that became a learning hub, Heritage Out of School Time, or HOST, and the organization’s nutrition programs for children and adults.

McWilliams said the safety protocols for the HOST learning hub has expanded to 19 pages. Staff arrives an hour before the children to use a bleach solution to clean the facility. All children and staff are masked unless eating and when the children are eating they are separated by plexiglass.

Children have their temperatures checked three times a day. The facility is cleaned again mid-day, there are washers and dryers on site so every person there, even staff, has extra clothes that are clean, and all of it is documented in log books.

McWilliams noted that the children, who come from 40 communities, including the East End, the Eastern suburbs, and the Mon Valley, spend their school days on remote learning from their school districts, but with teachers on site who help them navigate the system.

McWilliams said parents are often incredulous when they hear about the program, “they say, ‘Wait, my child can have as normal an education as possible and be fed and I can go to work?’ ”

The two child care programs normally serve a total of 300 children a year, though they have had to scale back during the pandemic.

In the nutrition program, she said the drivers who drop off meals for seniors are often the clients’ only in-person contact for the day and they — both the seniors and the drivers — just want to stand at the door and talk. The nutrition services, which feed the children, adults and provide meals to other nonprofits, serve 100,000 meals a year.

Three Heritage bus routes serve the Mon Valley. (Courtesy Heritage Community Initiatives)

A recent economic impact study of the transportation program showed that 67 percent of the riders were connecting to Port Authority of Allegheny County.

PennDOT subsidizes 85 percent, or more than $800,000, for the cost of transportation throughout the Mon Valley.  Allegheny County provides an additional $131,000.

According to the study, every dollar invested in Heritage Community Transportation returns $13.16 to the local economy through wages of riders, who depend on the service to keep their jobs, employees wages, and the amount that riders spend at local businesses.

During its 20 years in operation, Heritage Community Transportation has provided more than 1.5 million rides.

Heritage Community Initiatives is the only human services nonprofit in the state that provides public transportation.

Ann Belser is editor and co-founder of Print, a monthly newspaper serving Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods. This article originally appeared in Print and is reprinted with permission.

Originally published March 19, 2021.

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