BY ERIN COX

DHI Media News Editor

ecox@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT — Liberty Mobility Now will soon introduce its service to Van Wert County, the very first location the company will open its rural transportation service.

Liberty partnered with the United Way of Van Wert County, the Van Wert County Department of Health and Van Wert County Hospital to bring its services to the community because of the major need for transportation in the community.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, only 14 percent of rural households in the United States have access to any form of public transportation. With 60 million Americans living in rural communities, that means 51.6 million Americans have no access to public transportation.

Members of the Van Wert community have felt this unmet need for years.

“We’re excited to be able to bring the community this option,” Valerie Lefler, president and CEO of Liberty Mobility Now, said on Thursday morning. The plan is for the service to be available early next week.

“Using a model similar to Uber, which uses ride-sharing to reduce overhead, Liberty does not own any vehicles and the drivers are independent contractors,” a release from Liberty explained. “The key difference is Liberty drivers go through enhanced employment screenings, fingerprinting, and drug and alcohol testing as well as a full day of training on safe driving and customer service.”

Currently, Liberty has a team of seven drivers from the community. The drivers’ vehicles must be inspected prior to the launch date.

“The goal is that the service is available 24 hours day, seven days a week. The drivers that we have that were trained just yesterday have hours that span Monday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 6:59 a.m., Lefler said. “Right now we just have these first seven and then we’ll be bringing more on in two weeks and then more on after that.”

“Right now it’s going to be kind of limited if you’re that one person that’s getting that driver that’s available but it will expand,” she added. Liberty hopes to get 56 drivers for Van Wert County.

Lefler noted the drivers are all from the community and they range in age from early 20s to late 60s, early 70s.

When the company launches next week, the only way a person can request a ride from one of the drivers is through an app that can currently be downloaded from Google Play and next week will be available for download through the Apple Store.

When riders request a ride, it will provide a photo of the driver, vehicle type, license plate number and the driver’s first name.

Users of the app can request a ride right at that moment or they can schedule a ride for later.

Eventually there will be three ways to request a ride. The first six weeks will be just through the app, in late March a call center will be launched and in late April organizations will be able to request rides for clients, employees or students through an Enterprise Portal. The Times Bulletin will continue to provide updates as information on these becomes available.

The Liberty drivers have all different kind of vehicles and users of the service can choose a ride based on need, as far as if the vehicle is wheelchair accessible and how many passengers it can hold.

“The best part about it is, it’s your neighbors, it’s your friends, it’s people you went to school with that are providing these rides. It’s not some stranger you’ve never met before or someone you don’t have a connection with some way,” Lefler said.

“We’re incredibly excited to be here in Van Wert County and the support from the community has been amazing,” she said. “Working with United Way, the hospital and the Department of Health, without their partnership and support, this wouldn’t have been possible, so we’re just forever grateful for their leadership and their community engagement to bring this.”