For Mildred Von Lobstein, a 70-year-old Arlington widow, the daily hot lunch at the Gunston Community Center is the high point of every weekday and normally her only cooked meal of the day.
For more than five years, a small bus has taken Von Lobstein and about two dozen other elderly or handicapped persons from their homes to the community center in South Arlington.
The free transportation, like the free nutrition program, started in the mid-1970s, when the federal government began insisting that better transportation services be provided for the elderly and the handicapped. That mandate developed into a large "paratransit" system of vans and buses that, in Northern Virginia, logs millions of miles a year.
Now, with Reagan administration budget cuts, local officials believe the mini-transportation systems need to coordinate their services to save money.
The cuts will mean less money to buy buses and vans, due to cuts in grants from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, and less in operating subsidies, which come from the Older Americans Act, Medicaid and Social Security, says Thomas Brannan, spokesman for the Northern Virginia Planning District Commission. "Congress already has cut Medicaid and Social Security funds that support these programs by 25 percent," he said, "and the programs could be phased out completely in two to three years."
Last week, the planning commission proposed an area coordinating council to consolidate and streamline the hundreds of bus and van lines that now serve the elderly and handicapped in Northern Virginia.
The proposal is the outgrowth of a $94,000 commission study that outlined the number and kinds of transportation systems in the area. Similar studies are being done by Prince George's County, the District and Metro, all aimed at developing an area transportation plan for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
A major goal of the planning commission study was simply to sort out and inventory local transportation programs that have sprung up in the last decade.
The study also found "that only 6 percent of the specialized transportation providers have links with Metrobus or Metrorail," that bus and van services are strictly limited by local boundaries, types of trips and people served by various organizations, and that most of the local groups would like to coordinate their activities.
If approved, the coordinating council would consider ways to save money on vehicles, including joint purchases, repair, and maintenance of vans and buses, and purchasing gasoline from local governments, which pay less than commercial prices.
It also could focus on consolidating many of the routes.
While most groups are eager to study ways to coordinate and save money, Elaine Joyce, director of the Northern Virginia Association for Retarded Citizens (NVARC) says some groups already have begun working together.
"I can't imagine how we can further consolidate," she said. "We're sharing repair and maintenance facilities now with Assist." Assist is a nonprofit subsidiary of Transportation Inc., which owns several commercial firms such as Airport Limousine and Arlington Yellow Cab, and provides transportation for the elderly and handicapped in Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia communities.
Whatever the outcome of the consolidation plans, elderly or handicapped residents like Mildred Von Lobstein just want to make sure the services aren't cut.
"I get Social Security, $10 a month in food stamps and $41 a month from my husband's veteran's pension and I'm still paying off the mortgage on our house," Von Lobstein said. "These are wonderful meals for me.
"I can't drive, and the only problem I have with the bus is that it doesn't come on weekends or holidays. This is a wonderful program. We're just worried they'll stop the bus."