The bus is coming. Look for it to pull up at central peninsula bus stops later this summer.
Central Area Rural Transit System is awaiting four new vehicles this summer -- a specialized wheelchair van and three small buses to offer rides on a loop between Kenai and Soldotna.
CARTS is asking for public input on where the bus stops should be for the new route.
"Everything has, as you can imagine, a million decisions," said Kristin Lambert, CARTS executive director.
CARTS, a nonprofit organization formed by concerned citizens and social service agencies to help central peninsula people with mobility problems, gave its first rides in October and has been growing ever since. People can sign up for service and, by arranging at least a day in advance, get door-to-door service for a fraction of the cost of a taxi.
Lambert said she is concerned that some people still do not understand the way CARTS works. If they want to pick up the phone and get an instant ride, they should call a cab. But if they are willing to plan ahead and be flexible, perhaps waiting while the driver picks up someone else along the way, CARTS can offer a good deal.
She said she is even more concerned that there are still people in the community who suffer for lack of transportation and do not know CARTS can help them.
"I still don't know how to reach people who don't read the newspaper and don't listen to the radio," she said.
Despite those factors, ridership has been increasing and changing as people become more familiar with the possibilities. As of May, CARTS was providing almost 2,000 rides per month.
To accommodate the increasing demand, CARTS continues to seek business people or volunteers to help out with driving. The system pays for the services or reimburses mileage. After the buses arrive, it will need drivers with commercial licenses.
Anyone can volunteer, find out how to recommend a bus stop, sign up for service or arrange rides by calling the CARTS office at 262-8900.
Before the school year ended, the transit system provided about 1,000 rides to kindergarten students, a program that will start again in the fall. It now has a donation to give people rides to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank; a contract to transport clients for the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse; and a grant from Rotary International to drive people to Central Peninsula General Hospital for therapy appointments.
Although agencies subsidize rides for their clients, an increasing number of people are using the transit system on their own. Last month, 51 percent of the riders paid their own way.
"I'm a bit surprised at that because we have so many agencies involved," Lambert said.
Another group using the service more and more is senior citizens. Now, 20 percent of the riders are seniors.
The new wheelchair van will allow CARTS to expand its services to the handicapped. Although the new buses will have room for wheelchairs, a smaller vehicle was required as well, she explained.
"They need to be able to get into really small driveways," she said.
"We are getting more handicapped people here. That is all there is to it. ...
"We believe firmly that everyone has a right to mobility."
The van should arrive about the same time as the buses.
Originally, the buses were expected this month.
"We got word from the manufacturer there were delays at the factory," Lambert said. "They have been on order for months. It takes forever. They have to build them."
Now the buses are expected at the end of July. When they arrive, they will begin servicing a loop route running both directions along the Kenai Spur Highway, Bridge Access Road, Kalifornsky Beach Road and the Sterling Highway to link Soldotna and Kenai. CARTS plans to run two buses at a time for about three hours each in the morning and evening Mondays through Fridays.
The buses will cost about $63,000 each. When they arrive, they will come customized with features adapted for Alaska use. The emphasis will be on safety, warmth and light. Among the extras will be space for parcels and bicycle racks. Lambert was able to get almost everything she wanted on the buses.
"Except for the possibility of something for carrying fish," she explained.
"We know fish are going to be an issue."
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