East Tennessee families worry over ETHRA transport program cuts

MARYVILLE (WATE) – Families in four East Tennessee counties are starting to worry and come up with questions because a transport service they rely on may soon be temporarily discontinued.

Blount County’s Mayor Ed Mitchell said last week ETHRA’s program faced a budget shortfall. Because of that, ETHRA will be cutting back their routes in Anderson, Blount, Loudon and Sevier counties starting on March 1.

It’s being blamed on a change in how federal funding is handed out. The cuts in services do not, and will not, impact people on Tenncare, dialysis patients, or services covered by medical insurance. Congressman John Duncan’s office says they are looking into the situation to see how they can help resolve it.

For years an ETHRA bus has stopped in the driveway of Laura Caldwell’s home in Maryville to pick up her daughter Alex.

“It’s freedom,” she said.

Five days a week Alex goes from Maryville to the Sertoma Center in Knoxville, but now they feel like they’re caught in the middle with nowhere to turn.

“They take her out in the community. They take her to meals on wheels. They take her to movies. They go bowling. It’s just, instead of sitting at the house all day long or depending on mom or somebody, it’s just an opportunity to get out of the house,” said Caldwell.

The Caldwell family is trying to wrap their heads around not having an ETHRA bus make a stop.

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do. I’ve really racked my brain trying to figure out how we’re going to work this situation, because I have to work,” added Caldwell.

Between now and that March 1 deadline, city and county leaders in Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Sevier are looking at both short- and long-term solutions.

“I hope they see the need for it. It’s not just Alex,” said Caldwell.

She says the family is thinking of “what if”s between now and then too.

“Alex is non-verbal, she can say things and she understands a lot of stuff, but I can’t trust her to put her in a taxi, strangers to go. I can’t put her in an Uber, strangers to go. I mean, I have to have people I rely on and I trust.”

While many families wait for answers, the Caldwells have written to East Tennessee representatives, hoping they can find solutions.