Anyone who lives between Sterling, Captain Cook State Park and Kasilof and depends on the Central Area Rural Transit System to make their way around the Kenai-Soldotna area may want to keep their schedules open Thursday afternoon.
CARTS will hold a public meeting from 2 to 5 p.m. to assess the needs of its clients. Everyone will have an opportunity to talk about what's working for them and not working and what their view of the needs are, said Jennifer Beckmann, CARTS executive director.
CARTS staff will then discuss the needs and rank them in order of importance.
The annual meeting is required under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, or SAFETEA-LU. This act provides federal aid to roads, bridges and public transportation, Beckmann said. It requires human service agencies, like CARTS, to define what their community's needs are and create a plan to address those needs.
"This pertains to four different pots of money that CARTS or other human service agencies in the area may apply to as far as transportation goes," she said. "This meeting is a requirement of those funding applications."
CARTS began operating in 2000 and currently has a clientele of more than 3,000 riders, with 1,200 riding on a regular basis. Beckmann said the agency's ridership ebbs and flows with the seasons, with more people opting for bicycles or walking in the summer. CARTS sees its first increase in riders when school starts and again when the weather turns cold and stays cold.
It operates similar to a dial-a-ride system, except its clients must make their transportation arrangements 24 hours in advance. There are 13 different zones from Sterling, to the end of Funny River Road, Kasilof and Captain Cook State Park, Beckmann said. It costs $2.50 a zone to ride, and many riders use a punch card worth to get where they need to go.
Of CARTS' 1,200 regular riders, the majority purchase their own tickets, Beckmann said. About 14 percent of the agency's ridership is senior citizens, she said. Youth make up 11 percent and the disabled, 2 percent. There are different pots of money available to CARTS, depending on the clients it serves from the elderly to mental health patients to the disabled.
"Basically what we're doing is making sure that the needs that we have still apply," she said. "If there are new needs that come up, we need to add them in. We need to create strategies to address those needs, and we decide which ones are most important."
But since the gas prices have increased, CARTS' ridership also has increased, Beckmann said. Even though much of its clientele includes the elderly and disabled, anyone can use it as long as they make arrangements 24 hours in advance.
"We have seen an increase in choice riders," she said. "I think that the more people learn about the system and how they're able to use it, the more people will ride with us."
Part of this meeting is to attract more riders, but more riders means more gas. So far, CARTS has tried not to apply the increased fuel costs to its clients and is determined to ride it out. But Beckmann calls the situation a double-edged sword.
"We want more riders, but that means we have to buy more gas," she said. "One thing we are seeing as time goes on here is the trips are longer. Our average trip length has increased, as well. That means we're getting people from further out that are riding with us, but we are trying as hard as we can not to raise rates or limit service."
Thursday's meeting will take place at the CARTS office on Kalifornsky Beach Road. People are asked to R.S.V.P. by calling 262-8900.
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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