New transport system gets off to a fast start

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2000

For those without a car, an affordable lift is now only a phone call away.

Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS), the first public transportation in the Kenai-Soldotna area, started service Oct. 2. Its first two weeks on the road suggest that it is going to be a hit.

Organizers planned to gear up slowly, but calls have been coming in at about twice the anticipated rate, executive director Kristin Lambert said.

The first week, CARTS gave nine rides. By Friday afternoon, it had scheduled 54 rides in its second week.

"That's too good," Lambert said. "We knew this might happen.

"This is a learning curve. We are having to deal with questions we never even thought of. I'm really pleased."

The project is attracting attention from other towns around the state interested in starting public transport.

"We are looking at this to be a model for Alaska," Lambert said. "Because this brokerage is getting off the ground, it is giving hope to many communities."

Many big projects lie along the road ahead.

CARTS plans to do some promotional outreach and to hire a half-time volunteer coordinator to help train and schedule drivers. One priority is lining up volunteers to help transport kindergartners at Sears Elementary School, where the half-day schedule leaves some families without ways to pick up or drop off children. Next summer, CARTS plans to have a dedicated van running a regular loop between Kenai and Soldotna along the Kenai Spur Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road. The staff also may set up shopping days when seniors and others from outlying communities can get discounted rides to stores in town.

The people who have contacted CARTS for rides so far have been a diverse lot. The only surprise has been the high percentage of people with physical disabilities seeking lifts, Lambert said.

Others using the service include veterans, job seekers, senior citizens, students and people on public assistance.

CARTS already has provided rides to people with urgent needs, no wheels and no cash handy, including one person trying to get to a job interview. Calls have included a senior who pays $75 in cab fare to visit the doctor, a man working three part-time jobs and a woman who previously could only visit town to shop once a month. Some have called the new system a "godsend," Lambert said.

CARTS is far different from an urban transit system. It operates somewhat like a dial-a-ride. Riders are picked up at their doors and delivered directly to their destinations. They need to call the CARTS office at least the day before to make arrangements.

Rides do cost.

"We are looking at a little less than half a cab fare," Lambert said.

CARTS works out to be cheaper than owning a car for some people. However, for people who can coordinate with a group of friends to share a taxi cab, that option could prove cheaper than CARTS, she said.

Riders pay with a punch card, purchased at the office.

Cost depends on distance traveled. The central peninsula is divided into 13 zones running from north of Nikiski, south to Cohoe and east to Sterling. Cost is $2.50 per zone traversed.

Under the brokerage transportation model, which has never been tried before in Alaska, CARTS coordinates people needing rides with existing vans, cabs and a fleet of volunteer drivers.

"I do have some wonderful volunteers, but I need more," Lambert said.

The project also is looking for donors to buy punch cards for emergencies or people who cannot afford to pay.

CARTS is signing up drivers and riders at its office, which is in the old bus barn at 43530 Kalifornsky Beach Road. After purchasing punch cards, riders can arrange lifts by calling 262-8900.

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