Ninilchik Traditional Council plans a peninsula public transit service

The Ninilchik Tribal Council constructed a building to serve as a transit hub on Oil Well Road.

Ninilchik is more than 37 miles from either of the central and southern peninsula’s hospitals, which isn’t a problem for most people with a car and license. For those without, it’s an enormous barrier.

 

The community has the conundrum of being nearly perfectly centered between the western peninsula’s two major population centers of Homer and the Kenai/Soldotna area. It falls outside the purview of both Central Emergency Services and Anchor Point Fire & Emergency Service Area, and while the community has some medical services, they can’t do everything.

So the Ninilchik Traditional Council drafted a plan for a western peninsula public transit system.

“We thought we’d be a good location for a (transportation) hub,” said Darrel Williams, the resource director for the tribe. “If you had a fixed-route service to address these needs, you could have somebody get on the bus in Homer, and then switch buses in Kenai.”

The idea is to run a bus service similar to a Greyhound bus for the Kenai Peninsula — offer a scheduled bus service that could ferry people between the population centers frequently and dependably enough that they could commute to work, get to their medical appointments, do shopping or simply visit with friends, Williams said. The tribe conducted a survey and found that transit and access to health care were among the top concerns of the both Native and non-Native residents, he said.

With that in mind, the tribe began working on a plan, purchased the land and built a 5,000-square-foot building to serve as the hub. They conducted an environmental assessment and determined that the project would have no meaningful negative impact, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs signed off on it in June 2012.

The tribe estimated a $200,000 annual operating budget with a $1.2 million startup cost to purchase buses, drivers, insurance and other startup costs, Williams said.

Native American and Alaska Native tribes are allotted separate transit funding in the Federal Transit Administration’s budget, called Tribal Transit funding. Tribes can apply for these funds for transportation projects and are granted a certain amount based on tribal population, road mileage and average tribal shares of funding in the past.

Williams said he has been working with the Federal Transit Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine what the best combination of funding is to get the concept off the ground.

But, as with any large project, there have been roadblocks. The Ninilchik Traditional Council has to approach the state as well to determine how funding should be allocated to maintain roads and to the project itself, apply for the federal money and determine a cost structure for how the program will maintain itself.

The Ninilchik Traditional Council also asked the borough to support its requests for approximately $1.1 million from the state last year. The borough elected to support the Central Area Rural Transit System, which was one of three applicants.

Partnerships

Ninilchik can follow the footsteps of other tribes that have established systems. In Sitka, the tribal transit dollars play into a cooperative system.

Buses run on efficient one-hour and half-hour loops on three routes in the city, ferrying people of all backgrounds to their various destinations for approximately $2 per ticket. Those with disabilities or injuries can order paratransit that will drop them off close to home, and seniors pack into vans to make it to the Sitka Senior Center for lunch.

Part of the funding comes from the Tribal Transit program, but the whole system is the combined effort of three individual organizations in the city.

“We have people with macular degeneration who can’t drive in the winter because it’s dark, and they use it,” said Connie J. Sipe, the executive director of the Center for Community, which heads the transit effort. “We have a lot of tourism use. We have commuters who use it. We have bike racks on every bus. We have hikers who go out and come back. It keeps growing.”

The Center for Community, a nonprofit organization that provides services to seniors, the disabled and families, heads the coordination effort, with financial and technical assistance from the Sitka Senior Center and the Sitka Tribe, Sipe said.

The Sitka Tribe jumped into the Tribal Transit program early, applying for grants in 2002, Sipe said. Because the tribe is relatively integrated into the city — approximately a quarter of Sitka residents are tribal members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 population estimate — they were well-positioned to establish a transit program that could also serve the general public, Sipe said.

At first, there were two buses on hour-long loops. This worked well, but the group started receiving suggestions about expanding service, Sipe said. The senior center already had a service available to pick up seniors, who often need paratransit, and when the Center for Community put out a request for proposal, the award went to the senior center, she said.

“The tribe with their money started a new route, which is a half-hour loop,” Sipe said. “The other two routes now go further out and reach more areas, including our ferry terminal. They started to run an hour later at night, and the tribe put on this third route. To the public, it’s all one thing.”

Today, the Center for Community owns four buses, the Senior Center owns two, and the system delivered 44,000 rides on the general buses and approximately 4,000 on the paratransit system last year, Sipe said.

Sitka is a more condensed community than the peninsula, so the challenges are different. A system on the peninsula would cover much more area, necessitating a different plan, Williams said.

“What we’re looking at is a little larger scale, longer routes, more roads, more people to deal with,” Williams said. “You really can’t compare it to the bus system in Anchorage. There will be fluctuations in terms of population, drivers versus nondrivers. But over time, we’ll be able to establish a projected ridership of how many people need the service.”

Planning and funding

Integrated into the planning process is sustainability. Sitka has operated its program since 2002, through federal shutdowns and economic recessions and is still planning to expand, Sipe said. One of the goals right now is to get the city to play a larger role, she said.

Many of the tribes that work with federal agencies are facing uncertainty with funding. The MAP-21 grants, which were an extension of the original federal transit funding bill, are reaching a sunset, and the future of federal transit money is unclear, according to Byron Bluehorse, the Tribal Technical Assistance Program Manager at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Interior Alaska campus.

“It hasn’t been consistent,” Bluehorse said. “They’ve introduced two bills from the Senate and the House, and basically what they’re running into is how we pay for a six-year bill.”

Bluehorse and his staff conduct training sessions for tribal members and managers in Fairbanks on how to access and use federal grants for local projects. Travel to all the remote locations where Alaska Native tribes are located would be expensive, so they conduct many training sessions in Fairbanks, Anchorage and other major population centers in Alaska.

One of the major challenges in helping tribes with project planning is making sure the training is available, Bluehorse said. The program is developing an online course in conjunction with in-person discussions to make it more available to tribal members who cannot make it to a training session. Having the training more consistently available will help tribes plan further into the future, he said.

The training may help in roles beyond just the planning. Sipe, whose background is in law, said running a transit program is complex and can be frustrating.

“Transit is incredibly complicated to manage — we’re required to do all the same things Chicago is (with reporting),” Sipe said. “Sometimes I pull my hair out over it. It’s a daunting thing to go into for anyone.”

Part of the trouble is that public transit is not designed to make money, so it depends on federal, city and grant dollars to operate. The city of Sitka is involved, but obtaining money from the state was difficult because state law did not mandate matching funding for public transit until four years ago when former governor Sean Parnell set aside $1 million in general funds to match public transit projects.

But with the state’s fiscal situation uncertain and general fund dollars disappearing, the tribal transit programs are feeling it, she said.

As Ninilchik keeps planning its program, it will have to compete with existing transit programs for state funding, which is already a pre-determined amount in the budget. With more projects approaching for a portion of that budget, “the slices get smaller and smaller,” Sipe said.

Williams said the tribal council is mostly focused on getting transit available to those who need it, not so much who provides it. There is a community task force addressing the transit issues on the peninsula and CARTS already provides rides to the public on a paid punchcard system.

However, the concept the tribe has organized could reduce the risk of traffic accidents by removing some of the drivers from the road, provide rides to bar-goers to reduce drunk driving and possibly reduce the amount of dust in the air kicked up by traffic, Williams said.

“Even if we don’t do it, as long as somebody does it, that will be awesome,” Williams said. “That’s the other side of this that I think people need to understand. Making it happen at this point in time is more important than who does.”

 

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

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