Kristin Lambert is a happy woman these days. The Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS) she directs is running well, exceeding expectations and growing rapidly.
"I can see in a year's time we will have something to be real proud of," she said.
Wednesday, Lambert and her staff of two reported their progress and plans at the monthly meeting with the agencies and organizations partnering in the central peninsula's first public transit system.
The soaring usage has all of them smiling.
CARTS offered its first ride at the beginning of October. Instead of running a fleet of buses, it uses a "transportation brokerage" to coordinate rides and use existing resources more efficiently. People get door-to-door service but must pay in advance and reserve rides at least a day ahead.
In its first month on the road, users scheduled 170 rides. By the end of its third month, the cumulative total was up to about 1,000.
But in just the first week of the new year it has scheduled 300 rides.
"It has been just unbelievable," said Kathy Tikka, the dispatcher. "It is getting to where the phone is just constant."
About 150 people have used the service so far, and since the end of the holidays about 20 new people a week are signing up.
In November, CARTS added volunteer coordinator Jennifer Beckmann to the staff. The headquarters has expanded several times and is in the process of adding a new office, meeting room and garage.
Beckmann's truck, vehicles from other volunteers and vehicles from Alaska Cab make up CARTS' fleet.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Riders are benefiting from the growth already. Effective the first of the year, CARTS cut its base ticket price from $2.50 to $2.
Users purchase punch cards in advance from the office and pay $2 for each mapped zone they pass through during a trip.
Lambert explained that keeping costs to the public low is a major concern.
"One of the reasons is we are trying to match the national standards," she said.
"The real reason is to determine the need."
The focus for CARTS is serving central peninsula residents who lack adequate transportation, she said.
"We are not running this as a business to make a profit. We are running it as a service for a community with unusual needs."
Lambert would like to be able to offer free rides, at least to some people at some times, she said.
"The biggest feedback we get is, even though it is inexpensive, there are some people who cannot afford it," she said.
Most riders are subsidized by social services. Only one in five pays their own way.
Thirty percent are paid for by the state Department of Labor, 23 percent by public assistance and the others get help from a variety of entities including Kenai Alternative High School, the Department of Family and Youth Services, veterans groups, Native service organizations and the Women's Resource and Crisis Center.
The main reason people turn to CARTS is to get to work. About 60 percent of rides are for jobs.
Another 10 percent each are for medical appointments, school or community support services. A small fraction of people use the transport for shopping or personal reasons, Lambert said.
The system relies on a network of community support, grant funding and volunteer drivers.
Beckmann said she is eager to dispel misconceptions people may have about signing up to drive. People can participate as little as an hour or two a week, and they will be reimbursed for mileage, even if they would have driven that way anyhow.
Top priority is to find someone for a regular route taking kindergartners to Sears Elementary School in Kenai in the middle of the day.
Unocal gave CARTS a grant to pay for the expenses; now CARTS just needs the drivers.
"If you are already transporting your child," Beckmann said, "If you go a little out of your way, we will reimburse mileage."
CARTS also takes donations from people willing to pay for punch cards to help out those who cannot afford them.
As CARTS grows, Lambert and her staff have a lot of plans.
They are in the process of getting transit software, which will automate many of the reservations and reports.
It is due to become operational around March.
"Then we will be able to handle so much more," Lambert said.
"We will be so whiz-bang wonderful."
They are preparing to order three small buses, to move people in the summer along a loop between Kenai and Soldotna via Kalifornsky Beach Road and the Kenai Spur Highway.
Also on their upcoming calendar are a logo contest, a forum for riders to solicit suggestions and workshops on customer service and the experience of similar systems in other states.
The three women are looking forward to a year of rapidly evolving service.
"We want to be changing," Lambert said.
"This is just the start."
CARTS is signing up drivers and riders at its office, which is in the old bus barn at 43530 Kalifornsky Beach Rd. After purchasing punch cards, riders can arrange lifts by calling 262-8900 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday .
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