Bustling transit system lands vans

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2001

The Central Area Rural Transit System continued its winning streak this month. The fledgling central peninsula nonprofit transit system has acquired the first vehicles of its own.

The two 12-passenger vans are the beginning of what may someday be a CARTS motor fleet serving the area.

The new vehicles are more good news for CARTS, which has been running smoothly, growing in leaps and bounds and exceeding all expectations for ridership, said director Kristin Lambert.

"We are thrilled with them," she said. "They have seats that recline like airplane seats and overhead reading lights. They are very nice."

She said she hopes the public will start to notice the vans with their gray and purple stripes around town.

The vans themselves cost CARTS nothing.

Lambert explained that the state Public Assistance program purchased six of them for transit in Anchorage. They cost about $37,000 but would retail for about $43,000. But they were never assigned.

CARTS was able to negotiate with the state and obtain the vans with no strings attached. The peninsula transit system is paying for insurance, licensing, the extended warranty and operating costs.

"We consider it cheap no matter what it costs, because we got the vans for free," she said.

The vans reflect CARTS' continued growth.

The system, which offered its first ride in October, is now booking 70 or more rides per day, enough rides to start combining trips in larger vehicles such as the new vans.

Getting vans for driving kindergarten students to and from Sears Elementary School in Kenai was especially critical.

Because the kindergartners attend only part of the school day, they can only take the regular school bus in one direction. The new CARTS shuttle, paid for by a grant from Unocal, helps families who cannot provide the other rides.

Volunteer coordinator Jennifer Beckmann said the kindergarten route began in December with four students. Now there are too many to fit in a car or taxi.

"Making two trips was definitely not cost effective."

Lambert and CARTS Board President Dick Troeger picked up the vans in Anchorage March 2. On March 5, the vans were in service, although the new paint and logos were not added until last week.

The vans are now serving the kindergarten route and a growing number of people traveling in a common direction. One van is parked at the Kenai home of kindergarten bus driver Susan Smalley; the other is based at the CARTS central office on Kalifornsky Beach Road near the Red Diamond Center.

Although they are the most visible, the vans are not the only new things at CARTS.

The office continues to expand. Beckmann has moved her desk three times, each time into a larger space. At the end of this week, dispatcher Kathy Tikka expects to move into a new office on the ground floor with more public access.

CARTS also has installed specialized software for transit systems. It keeps archives, tracks costs, spits out diverse reports and allows the staff to book the ever-increasing ride volume with ease.

"For federal funding, we have to track everything," Lambert said. "You really can't do it without a computer."

The next step for CARTS will be buses. Three are on order.

"We are hoping they will be here at the end of June," she said.

The buses cost about $65,000 each. CARTS got that price, which she described as "an excellent deal," because it coordinated with a transit system in New York that ordered 400 buses and got a discount.

That cooperation among transit groups is one reason CARTS has done well, she said.

She also praised support from Kenai Peninsula entities, especially the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Mapper Dave Behm in the planning department generated a series of state-of-the-art maps of the transit zones. And Mayor Dale Bagley is helping arrange a tower for mounting a repeater for the radio dispatch network.

After the new buses arrive, the plan calls for a regular loop route between Kenai and Soldotna via K-Beach Road and the Kenai Spur Highway. That should begin in July, she said.

Although CARTS is building its own fleet, it still differs from a conventional urban bus line. 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.

CARTS also seeks volunteers to help with driving. The system pays for the services, so providing rides can be a business opportunity.

Anyone can volunteer, sign up for service or arrange rides by calling the CARTS office at 262-8900.

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