Recent grants from the state will help two transportation systems improve their services to thousands of rural Oklahomans.

The Ki Bois Area Transit System, in eastern and southeastern Oklahoma, and the Central Oklahoma Community Transit System serve many passengers who are seniors, disabled, low-income or from homes with two wage earners, but only one working car.

Both systems, which follow guidelines by the Americans with Disabilities Act, take people to work, college, medical appointments and even grocery shopping.

The Ki Bois system used $1.45 million in grant money from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to order 20 minivans and 12 transit vans, with delivery in January. Some vehicles that will be replaced have 250,000 miles on them, director Charla Sloan says.

KATS, as the locals call the nonprofit, serves a 9,858-square-mile area in Adair, Cherokee, Haskell, Hughes, Latimer, LeFlore, McIntosh, Okmulgee, Okfuskee, Pittsburg, Sequoyah and Wagoner counties.

“We take hundreds of people to work every day,” says Sloan, who has worked with KATS for 30 years and been its director since 1996. “We run around 236 vehicles about 5 million miles a year. It’s been rewarding. I have a lot of people call me and thank me for providing transportation for their parents when they can’t take off work.”

Many clients live in small towns and need rides to Tulsa or Oklahoma City for medical care. Sloan notes that some drivers have even saved riders’ lives when they noticed regular passengers were not boarding and knew something was wrong.

“A lot of the drivers get very close to their passengers,” she says.

KATS has contracts with the Muskogee (Creek) and Cherokee tribes and state health agencies, so many passengers, including those on Medicaid, ride free. Others pay as little as $1 a ride.

People with critical needs aren’t the only passengers, Sloan says. If people want rides to get their hair done, that’s fine, too.

“It’s open to anyone,” she says. “It’s expensive to own a car.”

The central Oklahoma system operates in a similar fashion. Director Tina Lowery says she began as a driver with many seniors as passengers.

“That’s how I fell in love with transportation,” she says. “I loved listening to their stories and making them smile. And that’s how I want my drivers to be.”

Lowery says $115,170 from recent state grants will go toward operations, driver salaries and fuel expenses. She has applied for two more state grants to buy five new vehicles.

“We definitely need to grow,” she says. “Our ridership has shot up this year by more than 1,000.”

The agency has 10 vehicles serving residents of Cleveland, Lincoln, Logan, Payne and Pottawatomie and Seminole counties and receives some funding from the cities of Shawnee and Seminole. Riders must call to make appointments; rates vary depending upon location, with many from $1 to $3.

Shawnee has a growing retail sector, which means streets have become busy, so “people are deciding they would rather ride than take their own vehicles,” Lowery says. “My dreams are to expand the hours and days, and to have a backup driver if somebody calls in sick. And we only have one Saturday driver. We need another one.”

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