Ninilchik launches Homer-Kenai bus service

Western Kenai Peninsula residents can now get to Homer, Kenai or Ninilchik by shuttle, courtesy of the Ninilchik Traditional Council.

The tribal government, based in the small community of Ninilchik about 40 miles south of Soldotna, recently launched its long-planned public transportation system. A bus runs between Homer and Kenai/Soldotna on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving Ninilchik at 8:30 a.m. on its way to Homer, then heads for Kenai, then back to Homer before docking back in Ninilchik for the night. A one-way ticket costs $7, a round trip $10.

Though the Ninilchik Traditional Council is an Alaska Native tribal government, the service is open to anyone in the public. It’s been a long time in the planning process — the tribe first began considering a public transit program in 2007, said Environment and Resources Director Darrel Williams. It’s called BUMPS — the Basic Unified Multi-Path Service.

“We built the building here in Ninilchik just for this,” he said. “…If (passengers) want to come and park here, that’s an option. We always thought that this is a good place too, because it’s central. And then the other part that’s been a challenge is that because it’s such a large area, can we pick somebody up in Homer, get them to Kenai and home in one day? We don’t want anybody to get stranded.”

The tribe built a separate hub for its transportation services and has been working out the funding and planning details for the actual bus service since. The northern leg of the route, between Ninilchik and Kenai, has been running for several months, but it took a little more time to work out the licensing issues with the city of Homer to start running the southern route. But now both are up and running, running with one vehicle for now with the possibility of expanding to two, Williams said.

The bus runs a fixed route, meaning passengers have to make their way to central locations from their homes to get a ride. Right now, they’re making stops in the towns that are common for riders, such as the Cheeky Moose store in Anchor Point, the Safeway in Homer, Fred Meyer in Soldotna and at Walmart and the Kenai Municipal Airport in Kenai.

They’re open to suggestions, such as stopping at the hospitals in Soldotna or Homer, Williams said.

“Part of the problem here on the Kenai in general is I think public transit of some kind is really overdue, but at the same time, we don’t really have things like bus stops or pickup points,” Williams said. “We’re using local businesses or waypoints that seem common.”

The genesis of the idea came from wanting to help tribal members who may have a hard time driving to access services not available in Ninilchik, such as medical services through the hospitals or grocery shopping. To provide services to just tribal members, they were able to access some federal funding through a program known as Tribal Transit. However, the planners soon began to consider all the people who may not be tribal members but still need access to that transportation, and applied for general Federal Transit Administration grants to support the program as well.

Williams said the program will help fill in some of the gaps in transportation available on the Kenai Peninsula, providing people without cars, licenses or the ability to drive a way to still get from community to community. There are other linking programs for those who need to get places other than the dropoff points, such as short taxi ride from the Kenai airport to the courthouse or from Homer’s Safeway to Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus. Encouraging people to share rides may also help reduce some of the traffic congestion on the peninsula’s roads during the busy summer and reduce emissions from everyone driving individual vehicles, he said.

The service is only a few months old, so they’re planning to see how things go as time goes on, Williams said.

“We plan on trying to make this work,” he said. “Really, honestly, time is going to tell. And there’s events, too.”

The Ninilchik Traditional Council’s bus service isn’t the only public transportation service on the Kenai Peninsula, but it’s a step in a broader ongoing conversation about the need for increased availability of affordable public transit. The Central Area Rural Transit System, or CARTS, has been providing public transportation on the central Kenai Peninsula since the early 2000s, but does not run south of Kasilof. CARTS used to provide taxi voucher services in Homer and weekend service in the central peninsula, but suspended both in 2017.

CARTS is currently in the process of gathering public information through a consultant firm for the rewrite of its five-year transportation strategy. The firm, California-based AMMA Transit Planning, held two public meetings in the central peninsula last week.

“The second phase will be a choices workshop, one in the central peninsula, one in Homer,” said Heather Menninger, the principal consultant, in a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on March 6. “…Finally, we will gather from that process a series of recommendations to present to the CARTS board of directors.”

The plan is designed to address public transportation on the Kenai Peninsula as a whole, though CARTS issued the requests for proposals individually. Menninger told the assembly that the design of the plan would take into consideration the ongoing Kenai Peninsula Borough Comprehensive Plan update.

CARTS relies primarily on federal and state funding for its operations, drawing partly from users’ fees. Two years ago, during the fiscal year 2017 planning, both the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the city of Soldotna pulled their funding support for CARTS, which the organization said resulted in a significant reduction in federal funding because of the required local match. Assembly members cited concerns about management in deciding to pull the funding, and again declined to restore the funding in the fiscal year 2018 budget.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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