Local groups, government examine need for more public transit

Garry Cason is friendly with a lot of cab drivers in Kenai. They ferry him to and from the grocery store, medical appointments and to social events. He has depended on them for the last three years since he lost his sight.

Cason, who lives in north Kenai, estimated that a trip to Safeway would cost him about $24 round-trip. So the cab vouchers provided through the Independent Living Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Homer that provides assistance to the disabled and elderly, were his ticket into getting rides around town. The vouchers knocked down the price — a user could buy $12 in cab rides for $4.

The center has been providing them since about 1998. However, the program will lose its funding from the state in July, a victim of Alaska’s tightening budget. The directors of the Independent Living Center are looking for other grant sources, but if they are unsuccessful, the voucher program will evaporate.

People like Cason will have to turn to private transportation from friend or caregivers, pay for the full cab fare — a daunting proposition for many on fixed incomes — or take rides with the Central Area Rural Transit System. CARTS, as the system is known, is the primary public transportation provider on the peninsula. The nonprofit provides shared rides in vans that it owns for a fee.

Riders have to purchase cards ahead of time loaded with their fees, based on the number of “zones” they cross through on their rides. Each zone costs $2.50 to ride through.

If someone like Cason wants to run several errands in town on any given day, he can’t do that with CARTS. The system provides Point A to Point B travel and must be scheduled 24 hours ahead. Getting on and off for brief stops is billed the same as crossing one zone. Missing the ride is not an option — after three “no-shows,” a rider is banned from the system.

“(The scheduling) is fine for getting there most of the time, but it’s not always convenient for getting home,” Cason said. “If I go to the grocery store, how long do you tell them you’re going to be at the grocery store? Do I tell them it’s going to take me half an hour, but what if it takes me an hour?”

Other people are more forward in their opinions, like Sharon Flood of Soldotna.

“Don’t even ask me about CARTS,” she said.

Flood said she can only walk for limited distances and has depended on the ILC vouchers and her personal care assistants, who can drive her to medical appointments and to the store when she needs it. Because medical appointments can run long or the doctor may be behind, it’s hard to tell CARTS drivers when to come back. If she misses the return trip, that’s a strike against her in the CARTS penalty system. Without the ILC vouchers available, Flood said she would be largely reliant on her caregivers.

“I try to make (my medical appointments) while a caregiver is here so they can transport me,” Flood said. “If I didn’t have caregivers to be able to help me out, I’d really be up the creek without a paddle.”

Public transit

CARTS opened in 2000 with the help of a grant from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to set up its office, hire a director and develop the rides program. The Alaska Mental Health Trust funded the equipment and rides, and Congress earmarked some funds for CARTS through the Federal Transit Administration. Another $100,000 came from Public Assistance.

At first, most of the rides were brokered through Alaska Cab. By 2001, the organization had purchased two 13-passenger vans, delivering about 2,000 rides per month, with about 800 of them to and from work.

In the nearly 15 years since, CARTS has grown to employ 22 people and run a nearly $1.2 million budget, according to its 2014 Form 990 tax documents. Approximately 70 percent of the organization’s funding comes from governmental grants; about 10 percent comes from rides along with a smattering of other revenues.

The rides are open to everyone who calls in, though riders have to establish an account, either over the phone or in person, and purchase a punch card — $12.50 for five punches, $25 for 10 and $50 for 20.

However the system doesn’t serve the needs of the public, said Shari Conner, who manages admissions to the behavioral health program at Central Peninsula Hospital and is an organizer at community coalition Change 4 the Kenai. She and a group of citizens and local government officials have called for a better public transportation option on the central Kenai Peninsula.

Conner has been looking into how to establish a better public transportation system for two and a half years and said she continues to hit roadblocks with CARTS.

Conner works with Serenity House, which offers substance abuse treatment programs. Those with drug and alcohol abuse issues often have difficulty locating transportation because their licenses have been revoked after a DUI arrest under Alaska law, and without driving, it is nearly impossible to reliably make it to work year-round on the peninsula, she said.

The distances are too great, cabs are too expensive and CARTS is both expensive and inflexible, she said. For many low-wage workers who depend on public transit options, work schedules may not permit them to leave work at the precise time they requested a ride, she said. She said employers have told her they will not hire applicants who depend on CARTS for rides.

“If you don’t know your work schedule, how do you use CARTS?” Conner said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly brought up the topic at its last meeting during discussions on the budget. After concerns from multiple assembly members about the operations of CARTS, the assembly voted to cut its $50,000 of support for CARTS.

Funding competition

Conner and a group of other citizens has been working on a public transit system that includes a fixed-route bus in the Kenai/Soldotna area. They are competing with CARTS and the Independent Living Center directly for money, both in federal and state grants.

Funding for transportation projects comes from a number of pools. The Federal Transit Authority offers support through a match program as well as Tribal Transit funding for programs that serve specifically Native Americans and Alaska Natives, which organizations like the Ninilchik Traditional Council have drawn from. The state offers disbursements for public transit projects, and local governments sometimes grant money known as nondepartmental funding to nonprofits.

Nonprofits can leverage local contribution dollars to obtain additional funding from other pools of money as well. CARTS Executive Director Jennifer Beckmann said the borough’s $50,000 contribution actually allowed CARTS to leverage an additional $119,328 because of fund matching.

Joyanna Geisler, executive director of the Independent Living Center, said in all previous years, there has been enough money to spread between CARTS and the Independent Living Center. This year, during the funding request cycle, a misunderstanding led to CARTS receiving most of the funding it requested and the center receiving none. Beckmann has said the informal process in the past has not included a vote and that her and Geisler’s projects have switched back and forth as the top priority.

The community should have had a vote on the project priorities rather than simply sending off a list, Geisler said. She said the community did not understand that the list corresponded to a top-down priority list, and as funding from the state diminishes, a vote is important.

She appealed to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which disburses the funds, but to no avail — her appeal was denied because the miscommunication occurred on the community level, not at the department’s.

“While what (Beckmann) is saying is accurate, it doesn’t mean it was right for the last two years,” Geisler said. “I will say that all of us, including myself, took her leadership and her representation at the prioritization meeting (to mean) that a vote did not have to happen. We took her lead on that, trusting that she knew what she was doing.”

Beckmann said in an previous email interview that CARTS cannot change its current services with what it currently has.

“While we are a public transit agency, CARTS is still a nonprofit organization that has limited resources and support,” Beckmann wrote in an email. “… CARTS is able to operate its current service and it will consider service changes with the buy-in, coordination, and support (both financially and otherwise) of other agencies and local governments.”

Conner would like to see some of the local and state support diverted to other efforts that seek to fill the public need, she said. She said the Department of Transportation’s attitude of not wanting to interfere in the community process after CARTS received all the funding was troubling.

“It’s clear that CARTS isn’t serving the public need,” Conner said. “(We are) a group of concerned citizens that wants to have a more efficient system, to make things better for the community. Why there wouldn’t be more openly received, I don’t understand.”

Geisler is applying for other grants, she said. She submitted a passel of letters to the Kenai Peninsula Borough in support of the Independent Living Center’s program, many saying that they can use CARTS to get to work in some cases, but they depend on the use of the ILC’s taxi program for their quality of life. That’s the responsibility of public transit programs, she said.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a nonprofit, a for-profit business … you have to listen to the customer base,” Geisler said.

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

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