There's been a lot of talk about economic development on the Kenai Peninsula of late. Throughout the year, forums in several peninsula communities have focused on how to diversify, energize and grow the borough's economy while not destroying the peninsula's quality of life. Proponents of a private prison proposal point to a boost in the economy from the number of jobs the prison would create. Brainstorming ways to replace the high-paying jobs that have been lost in the oil patch have enlivened many discussions.
In all the talk about economic development, one piece of the puzzle has failed to get the attention it deserves: transportation. Sure, there's been talk of extending roads, improving roads, expanding the airport, getting a railroad link to the central peninsula, creating a deep-water port and building bridges. All big-bucks, years-long projects.
But what's missing from those big-project discussions is an answer to a relatively simple question: How do you get people to existing jobs as well as to the new jobs there's talk of creating?
That basic transportation needs are not being addressed as part of any economic development plan is an indication that those making the decisions are so accustomed to having at least one car in working order, and most likely more, that they've forgotten that there are many people who can't afford the luxury of private transportation. It's a vicious cycle: if you're not working, how can you afford a car, and if you can't afford a car, how do you get to a job to earn a paycheck so you can buy one? The fact is, it's difficult to get around on the peninsula without reliable transportation.
That this is a real issue is evidenced in statistics from the Central Area Rural Transit System, the central peninsula transportation brokerage popularly known as CARTS. More than 43 percent, or about 650 rides, of the service CARTS provides each month are for trips to and from work -- and CARTS is still in its infancy. A ride to and from work is the No. 1 request CARTS receives. The two highest needs of those in need of work are transportation and child care.
If community officials really are interested in economic development, they need to make support of CARTS, which is being used as a model for other places, a priority. Economic development on the most basic level starts with
improving the economic status of those residents already living in a community. People who are going without paychecks because they can't get to a job because they don't have their own transportation are not contributing to the economic health of the community. Once they are able to work -- because transportation is no longer an issue -- their buying power increases, and they become an economic asset to the community. Crass, but true.
Unfortunately, those who need it most are least able to pay for it. Even at the low cost of $2 per zone, CARTS rides still are too expensive for some residents.
Public transportation in the form of CARTS, however, does more than shore up the foundation for economic development in the central peninsula, it is improving the quality of life for many residents -- and that means it's improving the communitywide quality of life.
CARTS officials have story after story of lives changed because people now have access to affordable transportation. There's the pregnant woman who was walking two to three miles one way to her job; she now is riding to work. There's the mother who is able to visit her children because she now can get a ride. There's the senior who can get out of the house and get her hair done. There are high school students able to hold jobs. There are young kids who can go to kindergarten and participate in the activities of the Boys and Girls Clubs. There are elderly people, unable or unwilling to drive, who now have the freedom to go where they want, when they want. People in need of medical care have an easier time getting to their appointments. People who, for whatever reason, want to park their cars and leave the driving to someone else can do so.
And it's all because of CARTS.
In giving lots of people their independence, CARTS also has connected them back to the community they live in. CARTS' work is a growing success story. It's making a difference in the lives of residents, and in doing so it's improving life on the peninsula.
Just last week, the agency was recognized with a Mover Award from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. CARTS received the authority's "agency best practices" honor and was recognized for its leadership, compassion and commitment in providing services to beneficiaries of the mental health trust.
With less than a year on the road, CARTS has demonstrated not only that there's a need for a viable public transportation system on the peninsula, but also that its unconventional methods are working and helping to fill that need. CARTS deserves the financial support of the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the cities of Kenai and Soldotna for both economic and quality-of-life reasons. As the cities and the borough prepare to finalize their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, they should include money for CARTS. It may well be the most important contribution they make toward economic development on the peninsula.
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