Reduced state budget creates competition for transit funding

For the first time in nearly 19 years, Independent Living Center clients on the Kenai Peninsula will not have access to transit vouchers.

The nonprofit, which serves the elderly and disabled population in the Central Peninsula, Seward and Homer, has sold taxi vouchers to provide affordable transportation to those who cannot drive since 1997 in the central Peninsula and since 2000 in Homer. Approximately 300 people buy the vouchers — approximately 200 in the Kenai/Soldotna area and between 50 and 75 in Homer.

On July 1, they will have to go without unless the Independent Living Center can find another funding source, said Joyana Geisler, the center’s executive director.

“We were the first program in the state of Alaska to develop a voucher program,” Geisler said. “People, for better or for worse, are dependent on the program.”

In the past, the Independent Living Center has split the funding available from the state with the Soldotna-based Central Area Rural Transit System, which provides transportation services in vans and taxis. This year, when the two applied to the state, only CARTS received funding.

CARTS received $705,857 from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities through the Alaska Community Transit grant program, the fourth largest grant in the state after the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, the City and Borough of Juneau and the Island Ferry Authority. CARTS also received $105,000 from the state for Purchase of Services, which goes to providing rides, and another $9,600 for a network server.

The Independent Living Center requested a total of $178,000 to provide transportation services in Soldotna, Seward and Homer. However, it did not receive any of the funding.

Part of the problem was the presentation of the list of priorities. When a community group met in November to discuss transportation priorities to submit to the state for funding, there was some confusion about how transportation projects are prioritized.

Geisler said this was not clear and that Jennifer Beckmann, as the executive director of CARTS, the lead agency for the peninsula, should have made this clear. Geisler said she has been participating in the project meetings for many years and has received funding all the years, regardless of which place her projects took on the list.

At the April 5 meeting of the Transportation Task Force, a community group seeking to improve public transit options on the peninsula, Beckmann said she never sent in a prioritized list. She said listing the projects that way was how it had been done for years, with ILC and CARTS switching back and forth as first on the list, and this year CARTS happened to be first on the list.

“For many years the funding for transportation, whether through FTA, DOT or other sources has been on the decline,” Beckmann said in a later email. “In addition the money that is available now is a set amount and as new systems start up it creates more competition for those funds. That is why coordination is so important.”

Stephanie Bushong, a Transit Programs Planner with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said at the meeting that the state’s tightening budget is making providing funds for public transportation more difficult. Some communities in the state have had to drop programs as well, and it will likely be similar next year, she said.

“Unfortunately, we had to cut over half the grants. … If we had more money, we’d just fund everybody,” Bushong said at the Transportation Task Force meeting.

Beckmann said CARTS made a request for funds that it did not receive either — a new van. She said in an email that CARTS would look for other funding sources to pay for a new vehicle.

Geisler said she plans to appeal to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Many of the Independent Living Center’s clients have a hard time working with CARTS, which requires riders to schedule everything 24 hours ahead and to be ready 15 minutes before and after the scheduled pickup time. Some clients forget or have something come up and cannot make the ride, so the on-demand rides that taxis provide work better for them, she said.

“After 19 years, I have a responsibility to our consumers and to our agency to say that it was wrong,” Geisler said.

The program meant more than just affordable transportation, she said. Clients would often come in to the ILC to buy the vouchers and forge a relationship that gave the ILC workers a chance to hear how a client was doing, even if the person would not normally have come to the center. The loss of the program also means loss of staff hours because of the way the reimbursement system works, Geisler said.

“We don’t have money within the organization to fund the program,” Geisler said. “I will be looking at other foundations, local support. … I’ll be scrambling around to try to find funds to continue the program so that we can assist with the transportation so that we can keep the doors open.”

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

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