Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:50 PM on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thinking outside the bus Public transit on its way to Homer

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff writer

Public transportation is coming to town, but Homer's version won't look like any other city's system. Instead of buses or subways, taxicabs will be the vehicles for moving the masses, such as they are.

This plan is a result of months of discussion by the Homer Coordinated Transportation Project Committee, a group of local businesses, human service agencies and CARTS, the Central Area Rural Transportation System. The group saw a need for expanded transportation access in the lower Kenai Peninsula area and have developed a unique solution.

Beginning sometime this fall, any member of the public will be able to purchase ride vouchers for $3 to travel by taxi in the Homer area.

"This is a very different model of public transportation," said Derotha Ferraro of South Peninsula Hospital. "We've come up with the slogan: Think outside the bus."

The Independent Living Center, South Peninsula Hospital and others already use the local cab companies to transport clients and supplies. The project aims to open affordable transportation to people who need it but would otherwise not qualify for disability or low-income vouchers currently offered by agencies such as the ILC, an organization that provides a variety of services to help people with disabilities.

The group also hopes to encourage more "choice" riders, people who could drive their own vehicle but opt to share a ride.

"We're not interested in starting a new business," said Joyanna Geisler, executive director of the ILC. Geisler said the group put a lot of effort into soliciting public comment and examining possibilities.

"Let's take what we know of Homer and what's working in Homer and try to create something that may really work," she said of the project process.

CARTS is the administrator of the project funds, which come from state and federal transportation dollars and matching funds from local agencies. CARTS Executive Director Jennifer Beckmann noted that while she is in charge of the money, she's not the one designing the project.

"I lend my expertise and experience but I'm not going to come in and set up shop. The project is going to be homegrown, so to speak," Beckmann said.

One stipulation for using federal monies is that the system must follow Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. CARTS will purchase two all-wheel-drive ADA-approved mini vans to lease to Homer cab companies. Kachecab and Kostas Taxi companies will operate, maintain, insure, fuel and license the vehicles. The companies will earn $7 for every $3 ride a citizen purchases.

Details about how the vouchers will reach the public have yet to be decided, but some neutral entity in the community will likely serve as the distribution center.

Initial service area boundaries will be Land's End; the Gear Shed; the junction of East Hill, Skyline Drive and Diamond Ridge; the junction of West Hill and Diamond Ridge; and the Shell station past Baycrest Hill.

The first year will serve as a gauge of community need. Phase two of the project could incorporate outlying areas, perhaps out East End Road to Anchor Point and expand the fleet of available vehicles.

"At this point a lot of things are possible," said Geisler. "We're trying to grow it from the bottom up; build the system to meet the need."

The committee has considered buses and other alternatives, but ultimately decided that Homer lacks the funds and ridership to sustain a bigger system. Nothing will kill a program faster than people asking "why are all those buses empty?" Beckmann said.

CARTS has been providing low-cost rides to residents in the central Kenai peninsula since 2000. In the CARTS system, rides are offered 7 a.m.-11 p.m. five days per week (except work trips, which are available 24/7) and people must schedule rides 24 hours in advance. The Homer system will operate with on-demand service just like a taxi.

CARTS has general public transportation dollars for a year of operations and 80 percent of the money needed to buy the vans. Matching funds will come from ILC, The Center, South Peninsula Hospital and the Alaska Department of Labor, which have committed to purchasing vouchers based on how much they currently purchase from cab companies. Seldovia Village Tribe, Chugachmiut and Division of Vocational Rehabilitation have made verbal commitments to buy vouchers.

CARTS is applying for one more state transportation grant to cover the remaining 20 percent of vehicle cost. In order for the grant to be approved, the project needs a resolution of support from the city of Homer or Kenai Peninsula Borough. Homer city council will likely vote on it at the first meeting in February. The grant application will be approved or denied by March. The vans could be ready to go by fall, at which time vouchers would be available to the public.

Lindsay Johnson may be reached at lindsay.johnson@homernews.com