CARTS cuts back on service

In response to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the City of Soldotna withdrawing their financial support, the Central Area Rural Transit System will eliminate its weekend service and trim its voucher program.

Effective Monday, the public transportation provider will only deliver rides Monday through Friday. The voucher program available in Homer through CARTS allows locals to use taxi cabs for half price, and the service suspension will stop the voucher users from using them on the weekends. The move also places a purchase limit of $60 on vouchers for individuals, according to an announcement from CARTS.

“This was a difficult decision to make,” the announcement states. “The CARTS Board is aware that there will be some riders who won’t be getting the service they have come to expect. However, we (feel) the revised schedule will continue to serve the most riders with the best system that can be afforded given the budget constraints.”

The cuts mean riders like Kathleen McInally won’t be able to get to the grocery store on Saturdays. McInally, of the Kalifornsky Beach Road area, said she has depended on CARTS to make it to medical appointments and to make trips around town.

“I just won’t go anywhere on weekends if my husband isn’t available,” McInally said. “I think it will impact a lot of people who rely on it to go to their jobs, (like at) Safeway. Some people have never learned to drive. Some people aren’t able to drive.”

CARTS depends on a mixture of local, state and federal grants for its approximately $1.2 million budget. Some federal transportation grants require a funding match in order to be used, and when the borough assembly and Soldotna City Council pulled their support, CARTS lost some of its federal funding as well. The combination equated to an approximately 10 percent funding cut for the organization.

CARTS is actively looking for other sources of funding but as yet has been unable to secure any, said CARTS Executive Director Jennifer Beckmann in an email.

The reductions were determined to be the most equitable way to reduce service, she said.

“We realize our customers will not be getting the same service they have come to depend on from CARTS and deeply regret that the decision will create some individual hardships for travel in the community,” she wrote.

The lost weekend service for voucher riders in Homer will limit many from volunteering and running errands such as going to the grocery store. Multiple agencies in Homer wrote letters to the CARTS Board of Directors, asking them to reconsider. Joyanna Geisler, executive director of the Independent Living Center, which offers support services for the elderly and disabled, wrote that the cuts in weekend service and caps on the vouchers are understandable, but the restriction on the use of vouchers on the weekends does not save CARTS any money.

“The CARTS vouchers should be used by the public as needed; to get to and from work on the (Homer) Spit 7 days a week, to get to church on Sundays, to get to medical walk in clinics on Saturdays and to visit the grandkids on the weekends,” Geisler wrote.

During the conversations about cutting CARTS’ funding from the borough’s budget back in June, Beckmann and several of CARTS’ board members were present but did not offer public testimony in support of the funding. Geisler did, saying it would be better to keep the funding in the program because of the service it provides to riders in Homer.

South Peninsula Hospital, South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services, Ryder Transport and multiple individuals also wrote letters to ask the CARTS Board of Directors to reconsider. Ryder Transport, a cab company in Homer, provides service through the voucher program and the drivers are reimbursed for coupons they accept through the program. With a limit on the vouchers, it “should make no difference if we accept them five or seven days a week,” Ryder Transport owner Josh Cooper wrote in the letter.

“Ryder Transport is willing to continue to accept Carts (sic) coupons and continue the program as we have been seven days a week for the last couple years,” Cooper wrote. “This should not cost Carts any extra money as we are responsible for the scheduling and operation in Homer.”

Beckmann said the CARTS Board of Directors would consider the request at its next board meeting.

“The Board will review the ILC request for reconsideration and other feedback we receive from our customers at the next scheduled Board meeting on October 4, 2016,” she wrote. “This will provide time for the Board to evaluate the impacts created by the reduction in services.”

McInally said she was upset that the borough would fund nondepartmentals such as the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council and not fund CARTS. She said CARTS has been consistently reliable about picking her up on time and providing good customer service and that the borough should have considered the needs of the riders when determining what to fund.

“The service area that CARTS provides is really vast,” McInally said. “If they continue to lose funding, that could be a serious issue for me because I would not be able to be independent, and I need to be.”

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

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