In a major change of direction, the Central Area Rural Transit System Inc. has canceled plans to set up a bus route between Kenai and Soldotna.
The decision was a difficult one, said Kristin Lambert, CARTS executive director.
She, the board of directors and the CARTS advisory committee of partners announced July 12 that they had decided to postpone the bus route indefinitely.
"We decided to concentrate on what we are doing and do it better," Lambert said Thursday.
CARTS, a nonprofit 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. Instead of bus routes, it coordinates door-to-door rides using vehicles such as vans, taxis and cars driven by volunteers.
Three buses, costing about $63,000 each, were on order and due to arrive at the end of this month. CARTS canceled the order, and the manufacturer said the vehicles would be sold elsewhere, Lambert said.
The plan had been to offer busing on 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.
Lambert explained that several factors led to the decision to shelve the bus plan despite the work and anticipation already put into it.
One was an analysis of the CARTS users. About two thirds of the summer ridership has been people going to work; about one fifth of riders are senior citizens and another fifth are children. She concluded that a bus route would not address the needs of the people CARTS was designed to aid.
"It would serve new people, but it would not serve the people we help," she said.
Lambert said lack of municipal support was another factor. She approached cities and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly seeking funding help. The borough and Soldotna offered funding, but below the requested amount.
"If the municipalities want a bus service, they have to buy into it," she said. "It just isn't appropriate for us to step out and do it ourselves."
The staff also had its hands full ramping up the existing service. They wanted to focus on becoming established with the current system.
The bus plan had been "phase two" of the original CARTS concept. But the way the service has been developing in its first year made Lambert question her commitment to the traditional concept of public transit involving buses.
"Maybe tradition has nothing to do with it," she said.
In the end, she decided and the board agreed that adding buses would involve a major investment and potential financial risk for smaller return to the community than the other services CARTS offers.
"It is embarrassing, but it is also the wisest thing to do," she said.
The brokerage model CARTS uses seems to be working very well here, she said.
Lambert expects service to plateau at about 100 rides per day. Many of the clientele are handicapped or live in remote settings, where conventional bus stops would not work. The system of dispatching individual rides seems more appropriate to the scattered rural community, she said.
In other parts of the country, bus routes are run by municipalities in more urbanized settings.
"They really do a different service than what we do," Lambert said. "What we are doing seems to serve the Alaska layout really well. And the demographics."
Dropping the bus plan allows CARTS more flexibility. Financially, it is free to partner with organizations and agencies to help fund transportation projects, she said.
Lambert stressed that even without the buses, CARTS is plenty busy and growing.
Although CARTS canceled the order for the buses, it is expecting wheelchair-accessible minivans. The vans will accommodate up to two wheelchairs or seven passengers at once.
"We are going to have them before the snow flies," she said.
Lambert got word that more federal funding for the organization is in the pipeline. Sen. Ted Stevens' office notified the transit system that $500,000 in the pending transportation budget is earmarked for CARTS.
CARTS also plans to promote ride matches, shopping trips, safe late-night rides and mobility for people in wheelchairs as well as offering contract vans for groups such as the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska and garden tours. And, of course, people still can sign up for door-to-door service for a fraction of the cost of a taxi at the office on Kalifornsky Beach Road or by calling 262-8900.
"That is what we are here for -- getting rides for people," Lambert said.
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