Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:36 PM on Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Homer's public transportation system soon ready for take-off

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

Following their own advice to "think outside the bus," local public transportation advocates are hoping to launch a made-to-fit-Homer public transportation program by June 30.

The program draws upon services already provided by two Homer cab companies and uses federal dollars to expand those services by providing each cab company with a seven-passenger, wheelchair-accessible van. The program will benefit local organizations that provide transportation for clients and also will be available to the general public.

The vans are custom built on Chrysler chassis. They are due to be shipped from Seattle later this month.

"This takes the place of a fixed-route system that costs a whole lot of money, or a particular business running year round that will pick up people at bus stops," said Joyanna Geisler, Independent Living Center director. "Homer will probably never be able to afford that, so we are using existing infrastructure in terms of cab companies and then accessing federal public transit money that's out there. It's not successful yet, but if anyone can make it happen, we can."

The program will serve residents in an area that stretches from about the gas station on the top of Baycrest to Bidarki Avenue on Diamond Ridge to the Heritage RV park on the Spit to Redden Marine on East End Road. Trips will be paid for with vouchers that cost the public approximately $3 each. Who will sell the vouchers, expiration dates and specific reporting requirements are still to be fine-tuned.

The "glory of the program," according to Geisler, is that rides will be available whenever cab companies are in operation, "which is generally 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

"We talked about starting small and seeing how it flies," said Geisler. "And then, ultimately, depending on how much money we can leverage and the program's usage, branching that out to further boundaries and raising the rate."

Funding for Homer's public transportation effort comes from the Federal Transportation Administration through the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

"It's all FTA money, but we apply to the state," said Jennifer Beckmann, executive director of CARTS, Central Area Rural Transit System in Soldotna, who has been providing assistance to the Homer project. "The Department of Transportation likes to see one entity in the area be the lead agency and we just happen to be that."

Geisler described ILC's role in the Homer transportation project as "the systems advocacy piece. We were the ones that facilitated community meetings to try to understand the nuances of transportation, grants, CARTS and the local community agencies."

The ILC is one of several local organizations providing transportation for clients. ILC currently has approximately 85 people that have disabilities preventing them from driving or individuals over the age of 60 that receive transportation on a regular basis through ILC's arrangement with Kachecab and Kostas Taxi. The Center, South Peninsula Hospital, Homer Senior Center, the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the state of Alaska also provide transportation for clients, either through arrangements similar to ILC's or with vehicles owned by the various organizations.

Organizations that know they will purchase a specific number of rides each year and make that commitment to the local public transportation effort allow for pooling the amount of those purchases to leverage matching funds to develop the transportation program, said Geisler. That combined with the wheelchair-accessible vans are what opened the door for the project to serve the public.

"In order for the public transportation piece to happen, there had to be the wheelchair accessibility vehicles, so that's where the two vans came in," said Geisler. "We could not have just leveraged money for the general public without the vans. And we could have the vans and not leverage additional funds, but the whole shooting match makes for something open to the general public."

The vans will be used by Kostas Taxi and Kachecab under an agreement that lasts for the "useful life" of the vehicles or, in the case of these vans, a period of four years. It is the responsibility of each company to provide the necessary maintenance and insurance needed to operate the vehicles.

Chris Fischer, one of the owners of Kachecab, said vans like the two headed for Homer "start around $50,000, which is more than we can spend on a car." The rest of the Kachecab fleet is comprised of Toyota RAV4s "and we can get two for that price."

"It's a 'break-even' for us, but we'll have another vehicle and employ more people. It will be good no matter what," said Josh Cooper, owner of Kostas Taxi. "If you need a ride, just call us and we'll go pick you up. Then just use a coupon for your ride and go anywhere within the boundary lines of the coupon."

Beckmann said putting together a public transportation project is no small matter.

"It's very exciting to sit down and have a meeting and say, 'Let's bring public transportation to town.' Unfortunately, it never happens as fast as you want it. There are many of us who have been working on this for quite a few years," she said. "When you're dealing with federal funds, you have to deal with federal rules."

Geisler also noted the time involved to get the project off the ground.

"When you deal with the Department of Transportation's procurement, purchasing issues and granting, it's not a fast process," she said. "It's an arduous process."

Beginning the project doesn't mean the work is over.

"I would like to see quarterly meetings to assess how the project is working for the public and for the cab companies, as well as the agencies purchasing vouchers for clients," said Geisler.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.