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STREATOR - Transportation in Streator started going downhill in 1924, when the street car line shut down after only about 20 years. A few decades later, public buses followed, leaving residents today with no way to get around town except by car or foot.

With not even taxi cabs available, St. Mary's Hospital in Streator has partially filled the transportation vacuum with a service designed for medical patients who need to see a doctor office or go to the hospital.

The 5,600 monthly rides offered by the St. Mary's Medical Transportation Program are free, though donations are accepted. "Due to the lack of taxi service in Streator, we believe the service is necessary in order to ensure that our patients have the opportunity to receive the medical care they need," said Mark O'Halla, hospital administrator.

That's why the hospital is willing to pay the cost of the program that, with rising fuel costs, is expected to be more than $44,000 this year. With only one van and one driver, riders should call (815) 672-7637 at least 24 hours before pickup. The service operates from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, "which is usually when the (medical) appointments are scheduled anyway," said Becky Johnson, head of the program.

Because of the limits of the service, riders are asked to be flexible when scheduling a ride, said Johnson. It is on a first-come, first-serve basis. The van includes a hydraulic lift for wheelchairs and a driver trained in safety and emergency medical needs.

Meeting the public transportation needs of everyone else may be a long way off, said City Manager John Kolata.

Unlike larger, more solvent cities nearby, Streator cannot afford a public transportation system, he said. Ottawa, with eight thousand more residents, provides two small buses during business hours during the week at no charge to users.

The twin cities of LaSalle and Peru, each with fewer people than Streator, offer buses with limited destinations that operate once or twice a week at a small charge or no charge, depending on which city riders live in. All three cities also have taxi service.

While Kolata said he has worked in out-of-state cities that did offer some form of public transportation, the idea of Streator doing that has never come up.

"It's very expensive," he said. "We would like to see a taxi service come to town, but as far as I know, that's not happening."

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