Riding high ... CARTS marks 3rd year on central peninsula

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2003

At 9:41 Wednesday morning, Christa McGahan walked out of Mountain View Elementary School to catch her ride to school.

That's right. She was going to school.

Christa's mother, Bobbie McGahan, works in the kitchen at Mountain View and has to be at work by 10 a.m., 30 minutes before her daughter's kindergarten begins at Sear Elementary School, across town.

"It's just me," said the single mother from Kenai. "And I needed to get a job."

Six-year-old Christa is one of the 41 kindergartners who receive free daily transportation to and from Sears and Aurora Borealis elementary schools during the week from a program provided by the Central Area Rural Transit System, or CARTS. And with kindergarten running for only half the school day, Bobbie McGahan said the service is invaluable.

"I don't have to be worried about sitting at home and waiting for them to show up," she said.

CARTS just celebrated its three-year anniversary of delivering rides to Kenai Peninsula residents. Since late September of 2000, the organization has provided more than 89,186 door-to-door rides at a nominal cost for peninsula residents from Atkins Road, just outside Sterling, to North Cohoe Loop in Kasilof, and as far north up the Kenai Spur Highway as Captain Cook State Recreation Area. CARTS offers wheelchair-accessible vehicles and the free kindergarten rides as part of its services.

Although using CARTS requires proper prior planning, some flexibility and a bit of an open mind on the part of the rider, many CARTS clients who might not have any alternatives, like Bobbie and Christa McGahan, are grateful for the service.

"CARTS backs my feeling of independence," said Alix Sgambati of Kenai, who lost her ability to drive a year ago through a work-related injury.

"It's really been hard on me, because being an Alaskan, I'm really independent. I don't have to rely on others to get where I have to go."

She said taking a taxi from her home off Kalifornsky Beach Road to her aquatic therapy sessions in Soldotna could cost her $27. Using CARTS, however, costs her only $4 one way.

The service area is split into 13 zones, and punch cards are sold to riders in advance, at a cost of $2 per zone. Sgambati's ride passes through two zones.

An operations staff member takes the rider's information over the phone and mails out a punch card in increments of either $10, $20 or $40 with a punch for each $2-zone a rider passes through.

The organization began as an idea in 1998 when the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities started making plans with the Community Transportation Association of America to provide consulting services for rural transportation in Kodiak, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and on the peninsula.

CTAA worked with the Central Kenai Peninsula Public Transpor-tation Task Force to organize the rides program, and the organization was incorporated by January of 2000. The first rides were offered through a provider agreement with Alaska Cab that fall, and the program has grown since then, said executive director Jennifer Beckman.

"We were really pleased that in the first three months we delivered 983 rides," she said.

The company acquired its first two full-sized vans from People Mover in Anchorage in March of 2001. At the end of its first full year of operation, CARTS had delivered 21,614 rides, she said. In 2002, CARTS nearly doubled its productivity, delivering 41,341 rides. Thus far, this year the program has delivered 25,248 rides.

The program uses federal matching grant money from several Congressional Job Access Reverse Commute earmarks brokered by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and other funding sources to operate three full-sized vans and two specially equipped wheelchair vans that canvas the central peninsula picking up and dropping off clients as needed.

The kindergarten service is sponsored by numerous community donations and is part of the services the nonprofit transportation organization offers to the greater central peninsula area.

Beckman said 61 percent of the operating budget, projected to be $650,000 for fiscal year 2004, goes toward providing rides. This includes maintaining the vans, paying five part-time drivers and paying for contract service that continues from Alaska Cab.

She said the biggest problem for the ride service is clients who aren't available when their scheduled pickup arrives. Frequent "no-shows" can result in as much as a month's suspension from the ride service.

A driver can arrive as much as 15 minutes before or after a scheduled pickup and can leave a site five minutes after contacting a rider at a pickup.

"It really puts lot of responsibility on the client," Beckman said.

She said most of the riders use CARTS for work.

"Thirty-two percent of our rides is getting people back and forth to work," she said.

And getting people to work who don't have any other means of transportation is an important factor for clients of the Kenai Job Center, said work services supervisor Susan Lacey.

"We refer people there who obviously don't have a way to work," she said. "We're a very diverse and spread out community. And cars are expensive."

Lacey said on occasion, circumstances call for the Job Center to subsidize a client's ride. She said clients expressing such a need have to meet a set of criteria that includes being a temporary assistance recipient, being involved with a case manager at the center, being involved in work activity at the center, and having no other way to get to work.

"Have they exhausted all their options?" Lacey said was the final qualifying question her agency considers before subsidizing CARTS punch cards.

The need for the ride service can arise for anyone, however, under different circumstances.

Keryl Steger lives off of Scout Loop in Sterling and has been riding with CARTS for two years. She works nights at Big John's and said the 24-hour, seven-day service is helpful.

"My vehicles are old and not dependable," she said. "Especially in the winter. I wouldn't be able to afford to work because cabs cost so much."

Sandy Apostolos of Kenai lost her driver's license a year ago for driving without insurance. When she began riding, she was taking classes at New Frontier Vo-Tech Center in Soldotna and has since gotten a job with North Star Occupational Therapy.

"The director at New Frontier turned me on to them," she said.

Apostolos said it's important to plan ahead when you're riding and allow some room for changes, particularly to accommodate the alloted pick-up time window.

"Sometimes I'm early and I have to sit for awhile," she said. "You can't be in a hurry and you can't have a boss that wants you to be there at an exact time."

Beckman acknowledged that, as with any other human endeavor, the ride program is not perfect.

"I would be the first to admit that we make mistakes," she said.

Claire Keene uses the ride service to get to and from work at Tina's Too hair salon in Soldotna. She admitted that while not having on-demand rides is a downside, it was one she could overcome for her needs.

"You've got to call them the day before, and that can be an inconvenience," Keene said. "It just goes with the system."

The CARTS system requires riders to call one day in advance during regular business hours, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to schedule a ride. So a person who learns they need a ride over the weekend would have to wait until Monday to make plans.

"You have to be on top of your schedule," Apostolos said.

To cancel rides, clients are asked to phone in up to two hours in advance and can use a pager number for cancellations after hours. Failure to cancel a ride results in a no-show.

The first no-show earns a rider a warning. The second gets a week suspension from the program and the third could result in a month off.

"We don't want no-shows," Beckman said. "It can cost us a lot of money just to run from Nikiski to Soldotna if the rider doesn't ride."

She agreed with Keene that on-call service would be good, although she said that in certain cases, if a vehicle was in the area and the client was willing to wait, a pick-up could be arranged.

Keene said she appreciates the service and compared it to the bus stops used by Anchorage's public transit system.

"It's better than People Mover," Keene said. "You don't have to wait in the cold."

Beckman said Phase 2 plans for regularly scheduled stops along the loop created by the Spur and Sterling highways and Kalifornsky Beach Road were scrapped because it would only service 10 percent of CARTS' client base. She said she and the board of directors opted to stick to the door-to-door format.

"It's not always the most convenient, and you really have to be flexible," she said. "On the other hand, it is a guaranteed ride."

For Bobbie McGahan, the service is just what she and her daughter need.

"I like it and (Christa) likes it, too," she said. "It's great."

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