Public transportation should reach the central Kenai Peninsula before this year's salmon and tourists arrive.
The task force that has been planning a public transport system for the Kenai and Soldotna areas hosted a public forum Thursday evening at the Kenai Senior Center to introduce CARTS -- the new Central Area Rural Transit System -- and the draft Central Kenai Peninsula Public Transportation Plan.
"The overall goal is to provide affordable, appropriate transportation services of the highest possible quality," said Joe Donahue, who worked for the task force on researching and drafting the plan and has remained involved as a volunteer.
CARTS organizers said they hope to begin offering rides in the middle of April.
The organization's interim board of directors is recruiting more members and filing for federal nonprofit status. It is in the process of hiring its first director and plans to have someone in the project's driver's seat by March 1, Donahue said.
The draft plan projects that about 3,800 riders would take advantage of the CARTS vehicles in the first year. That is not enough passengers to support a commercial venture, he said.
Task force members concluded, based on their professional experiences and public surveys, that although the Kenai Peninsula is rural, the need for more transportation options for many residents is acute.
"We have people hitchhiking to the food bank," said Dick Troeger, chairman of the CARTS board.
To provide services on an appropriate scale, CARTS will rely on collaboration and vehicles already on the streets.
"This has been a private-public mix the whole time," Donahue said. "The concept here is a partnership. The goal is not to put private business out of business."
To make ends meet, CARTS will rely on fares, grants and support from governments and businesses.
"As most of you know," Donahue told the audience Thursday, "it's not a free ride."
It will cost about $210,000 to run the system for a full year in 2001, he estimated.
The peninsula group has been eager to avoid problems plaguing other transportation efforts in Alaska, such as the Kodiak project that purchased small buses and never achieved solvency.
"We don't have to do their mistakes over again," Donahue said.
The peninsula task force, made up of about 50 representatives from a broad spectrum of service organizations, agencies and private transportation businesses, has been working for a year and a half on starting public transportation services.
Kristin Lambert, who works for the community outreach program of Central Peninsula Counseling Services and served as the task force's facilitator, said the level of cooperation is unprecedented and already is attracting attention from other parts of the country interested in emulating the grass-roots effort.
The task force lined up grant funding to launch the project, surveyed the resources and needs in the community and contracted for professional help from Donahue and the Community Transpor-tation Association of America (CTAA), a Washington, D.C., organization that specializes in rural transit.
The task force plan calls for phasing in the transit system in three parts. The first phase establishes CARTS to run the system and start service using an "access center."
The access center, recommended by CTAA adviser Barbara Singleton, will be a dispatch center to match people needing rides with the array of senior center vans, special service buses, cabs and other vehicles of the estimated 200 that now drive people around without any interactive coordination.
In later phases, as demand grows, CARTS will expand services, track use patterns and eventually offer a shuttle bus between Kenai and Soldotna, traveling a loop route along the Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Copies of the plan are posted on the task force's Internet site at http://centralpeninsula.wego.com. Copies also are available at the Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District Inc. office at 110 Trading Bay Drive, Suite 150, in Kenai.
Interested people should submit comments on the draft plan by the end of the day today.
At the forum, the task force members said they believe the key to CARTS' success is caution and patience. They are in no hurry to send a fleet of new vehicles onto the road.
"We want to start small and grow over time," Troeger said. "We're in it for the long haul."
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