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Local funding for CARTS at risk

Posted: June 25, 2013 - 10:04pm

A resolution up for assembly action next week seeks to call a public vote on the question of continued borough financial support for the Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS).

If the Kenai Borough Assembly forwards the vote to the people the results would be advisory. The 2014 borough budget, which started on July 1, allocates $25,000 to CARTS’ overall $1 million budget, which funds about 500,000 driving miles.

The chance for public testimony about continued borough support for CARTS passed by last week without a single comment from the public, which had largely gathered to speak about the salmon habitat ordinance.

At issue is a belief by District 7 assembly member Brent Johnson that many in the borough have concerns about continued support of public transportation on the Kenai Peninsula.

His resolution, which was pulled from the June 18 consent agenda, followed a failed 11th hour attempt on June 4 to amend the 2014 borough budget to increase CARTS funding from $25,000 to $50,000.

Johnson did not return a call Tuesday seeking specifics about those complaints. However, District 9 Assembly member Mako Haggerty, during a committee report at the June 18 assembly meeting, said that Johnson had received many comments on the issue from his constituency.

Assembly President Linda Murphy voiced her concern upon the introduction of Resolution 2013-56, last week. Describing her understanding of CARTS users as children, underemployed, unemployed and seniors, she said the people who most need the service in their lives are probably underrepresented at the polls on Election Day, she said.

Murphy questioned Johnson’s “intestinal fortitude” when it comes down to voting for what’s right for the entire borough if his Clam Gulch constituency speaks through the advisory vote.

CARTS does not yet serve his district.

According to a 2010 CARTS study, nearly 15 percent of the borough population need access to public or “human services” transportation. However, less than 1 percent use it.

Those that use CARTS predominantly live in Kenai or Soldotna, where 81 percent of 50,000 yearly CARTS rides occur; 18 percent of riders use CARTS daily and 57 percent use it several times a week — largely to get to work, the doctor or go shopping.

Many CARTS riders are low income, but 33 percent of the ridership households make $35,000 or more annually. The cost to the rider is $2.50 per zone. There are 13 zones from North Nikiski to Sterling to Kasilof.

Most transportation systems in the state are a department of borough or city governments; CARTS is different because it’s a nonprofit public transportation, said Jennifer Beckmann, executive director of CARTS.

The relevance of a borough-wide vote is tough because the service is, at the moment, based on the central Peninsula, Beckmann said.

“The Assembly has always chosen to support us based on our merit,” she said.

At an average cost per trip of $22.13, most trips are done in CARTS owned vans and trucks, but Alaska Cab is on contract to haul riders, when CARTS vehicles are not available, or after hours.

When compared to similar sized rural transportation systems in counties in the Lower 48, with similar size populations to serve, CARTS is in line with expenses, even with Alaska taxi use.

The system runs 24 hours a day for transportation to and from work. It’s not fixed routes and times; that’s not feasible or cost effective, Beckmann said.

Adding context to cost questions, Murphy said for CARTS to lose the borough’s contribution would mean a greater loss that $25,000 to local public transportation.

CARTS leverages the borough contribution to gain more in federal rural transportation money. In the 2014 budget, CARTS turns $25,000 into $109,586 — equal to about 5,000 trips.

Murphy said she dislikes advisory votes in general and that the elected body should make decisions about CARTS. Holding public office is about making tough decisions, she said.

“We were elected to do a job,” Murphy said. “There is no way I would support this.”

Borough clerk Jonni Blankenship said adding the advisory vote to the October ballot would not likely cost the borough any additional money.

If the assembly approves the resolution Tuesday the question will go one the ballot in the fall.

Reach Greg Skinner at greg.skinner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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