With less money available amid an ongoing state fiscal crisis, the various agencies providing low-cost transportation across the Kenai Peninsula are working to make the most of the funding out there.
The Kenai Peninsula’s sole public transit system is operated by a nonprofit — the Central Area Rural Transit System, or CARTS. The agency receives most of its funding from the federal government via the state and charges a fee for riders based on zones in the central Kenai Peninsula area.
However, a number of other agencies provide transportation through a patchwork of vans and vouchers, including the central peninsula’s four senior centers, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Peninsula Community Health Services. As demand has grown, so has competition for funds from the state and local governments.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly lent its support to a grant application by the Independent Living Center to secure federal funds via the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to support its voucher transportation program, providing reduced-cost taxi rides to seniors and people with physical, mental or intellectual disabilities.
The Independent Living Center was the sole applicant, but had to prioritize one of its programs over the other, said Joyanna Geisler, the organization’s executive director. The state requires that a group of stakeholders meet and vote on community priorities to be forwarded to the state, and of the center’s two voucher operations in Homer and in the central peninsula, the group chose the central peninsula.
“…More people in the central Kenai Peninsula use the voucher program that in Homer, and because about 98 percent of the people that were (at the meeting) were from the Soldotna/Kenai area, the central peninsula project was prioritized,” she said. “But I will say what they wanted to do was prioritize both.
In early 2016, due to confusion in the application process, the Independent Living Center’s program did not receive the state funding supporting its operations. Last year, it did, but the funding only came in about half of what they applied for, Geisler said. As a result, they don’t expect the program in Homer to last through the end of the fiscal year at the end of June.
“In the beginning of the year we had to cut back the number of vouchers people could purchase each month … what we’ve had to do in Homer is we had less money, and we had to stop taking applications as of Dec. 1,” she said. “And we’ll probably run out of money by March.”
The funding that the Independent Living Center is applying for comes from a different fund type than the one CARTS applies for. Two years ago, CARTS stopped applying for the same funds that the Independent Living Center does, according to an email from CARTS Executive Director Jennifer Beckmann.
During the 2016 budget cycle, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly pulled its financial support from CARTS. Though the borough had put in about $50,000 of its own funds, the organization used it as a local match to obtain more federal dollars and consequently lost $119,328 in total funding. To make up for the loss, CARTS cut its weekend service in the central peninsula and Homer.
Former borough mayor Mike Navarre originally included $25,000 for CARTS in his fiscal year 2018 budget, but the assembly eliminated it before the budget was finalized, citing concerns about management and that CARTS does not offer transportation on the eastern peninsula.
CARTS is currently working on a transit development plan for the peninsula as well, granting the contract to California-based AMMA Transit Planning in August. The plan asks for the consultant to develop a clear service plan that “will ensure more effective public transit service delivery” and a work plan to address the problem of varying opinions among agencies and groups on how public transportation should be developed.
Beckmann said in her email that CARTS wasn’t sure what the results of the study would lead to.
“…Until we have gone through the planning process it is difficult to stay what the next steps will be after we receive the final report,” she said.
Two other groups are already in the process of planning their own coordinated transportation programs. The Ninilchik Traditional Council build a transportation hub in Ninilchik and has been looking into a Greyhound-style busing service for more than five years, running between Kenai and Ninilchik and Homer and Ninilchik.
The Kenaitze Indian Tribe has also applied for a federal grant to start its own busing system in the central peninsula area, though the plans are still up in the air. The grants are fairly competitive, with a number of tribal applicants around the country each year. The tribe currently provides some transportation with its own vans, such as transportation to and from behavioral health appointments.
Communications Manager Scott Moon said the tribe expects to hear back about the grant application and award in late fall or early winter, but have not heard yet.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.