Task force addresses transit challenges

Getting around the peninsula without a car or license is a struggle — one that Trisha Lansing knows firsthand.

After losing her license in March, Lansing rode her bike to work from Kenai to Soldotna every day. She relies on friends for rides, but they aren’t always reliable. In the winter, when she can’t ride her bike, she will face a problem if she can’t secure a ride with a friend.

“It’s very difficult, relying on others people, especially if you have meetings to go to and you have specific times you need to be there,” Lansing said. “I’d like to see public transportation, as in a fixed route (bus system).”

Because the peninsula is so large, traditional bus systems like those in other municipalities may not be an option. Cabs can be expensive, and with often rainy or snowy weather, biking or walking is not always an option.

The main public transportation system, the Central Area Rural Transit System, provides rides anywhere in the western peninsula from Nikiski to Kasilof, but can also be pricey. For example, to travel between Kenai and Soldotna requires three punches on the organization’s punch card system, which costs $50 for a 20-punch card. Rides must also be reserved the day before.

The result is that many organizations, such as Frontier Community Services in Soldotna, end up paying thousands of dollars every year to transport patients to and from appointments. Amanda Faulkner, executive director of FCS, said they do serve a specialized population, such as dementia and disabled patients, that require door-to-door transportation, but others would benefit from more open transportation.

“I think we try to be as creative as possible, but there are still barriers in getting our people to medical appointments, therapy appointments,” Faulkner said. “But for about 80 percent (of FCS clients), getting parents to parenting class, you bet a fixed route system would work. Having many modalities of transportation in our communities is more positive than being so constricted.”

Change 4 The Kenai, a local nonprofit that seeks to organize task forces and coalitions to connect the community, held an organizational meeting for the newly formed Transportation Task Force Friday to workshop ideas for a public transportation system for the peninsula. Shari Conner, the project coordinator for Change 4 The Kenai, said the task force will be separate from the nonprofit, composed of local transportation providers and stakeholders.

The group, which gathered at Peninsula Community Health Services in Soldotna, discussed broad ideas for service and challenges in funding. The Federal Transit Administration disburses funds to the Alaska DOT, which issues grants based on applications. However, according to Jennifer Beckmann, the executive director of CARTS, the DOT is not granting funds to new projects at present because of funding issues.

CARTS already provides a public transportation system for the peninsula, and a fixed-route system could be expensive, Beckmann said. The 2015 plan was only a stopgap measure, issued so entities could apply for DOT funding.

“It doesn’t have to be that everyone coordinates with a public transportation system,” Beckmann said. “It could just be that everyone coordinates with each other.”

Transportation options are limited for those who are not part of the senior centers or a facility like the Independent Living Center, which provides vouchers through a grant from the Alaska Department of Transportation for cab rides. However, their grant is provided through a federal law that provides transportation for elderly individuals and individuals with disabilities, which means a person has to qualify with a disability or by age to get a voucher.

A coordinated public transportation system has been in the works on the Kenai Peninsula since about 2010, Conner said. The most recent Central/Southern Kenai Peninsula Public Transit Human Services Community Coordination Plan, issued Sept. 12, is an update to the 2010 plan and part of a federal requirement to demonstrate coordination of transportation services. However, although there has been discussion about how to better coordinate transportation, little has materialized, Conner said.

Peggy Mullen, the owner of River City Books in Soldotna, suggested hosting public hearings and referring back to a plan established out of the plan from 2010 in which a fixed route would be established between Kenai and Soldotna. The fixed route would have deviations that would drop people off within three-quarters of a mile of where they want to go, coordinating many of the trips people need to make, she said. Coordinating resources and partnering could make such a system possible without spending much more than people are spending now, she said.

“I think (Ninilchik) is a case in point of needing those partnerships, to give them a chance,” Mullen said.

Kristie Sellers, the director of behavioral health for Central Peninsula Hospital, said the amount each of the health care organizations and users pays to transport clients and patients is an untapped resource. Transportation is also limiting for job accessibility between the communities, and establishing more affordable public transportation could improve economic opportunities, she said.

“I can think of probably ten times in the last year that I sat with somebody in my office that was ready to go to work,” Sellers said. “And we look for jobs, and they live in Soldotna and the only thing we can find is in Kenai, and what they are going to make is not going to pay for them to go back and forth.”

Smaller communities face their own struggles. Ninilchik Traditional Council has been planning a local transportation system, according to Darrel Williams, the Resource & Environment Department Director for the NTC. However, they have been unable to formally launch a service because of funding and an uncertainty of public interest, he said.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I received nothing from anyone on this,” Williams said. “I think we need to start doing risk analyses and financial analysis and take a hard look at it. We have a plan in place, shovel-ready, but we don’t have the buy-in.”

However, multiple attendees said they knew from multiple sources that peninsula residents would use a transportation service if it were available and affordable. Change 4 The Kenai has posted a survey on its website to gather information and opinions from peninsula residents on their interest and current transportation options.

Lansing said she thought the problem is not public support, but awareness and cooperation between providers and the public.

“I think we just need to get out in the community, do a survey, get people’s opinions,” Lansing said.

The task force will host its next meeting at the Soldotna Library on Oct. 6.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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