Central Area Rural Transit System, Inc. initially began as an idea, when a representative of the Alaska Department of Transportation contacted a representative at Central Peninsula Counseling Services in August of 1998, with a request that meetings be facilitated to coordinate area agencies and others interested in developing community transportation for the Kenai Peninsula. AKDOT had contracted with the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) to provide consulting services for rural transportation in three Alaskan communities, and the Kenai Peninsula would be the third, after the Kodiak and Mat-Su areas. The Central Kenai Peninsula Public Transportation Task Force was formed, with a Steering Committee of fifteen representatives. CTAA helped them conduct local workshops in strategic planning, community coordination, financial management and system design.
The Kenai Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development District agreed to sponsor and administer the initial planning grant from AKDOT, with guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant was for a planning study to analyze the community resources for transportation services, and to determine a method to provide for the areawide need. A consultant was hired to survey community resources and to assist with grantwriting. CTAA also received a contract to provide guidance for the transportation plan, long-range projections, and to help with system development. Four community forums were held to solicit input from area residents, and the transportation model selected was a community-based coordinated brokerage system.
After CARTS was incorporated in January of 2000, the AKDOT awarded the new nonprofit a one-time implementation grant to set up an office, hire a director, and develop the rides program. After interviewing applicants, an Executive Director was hired. Funding was received for equipment and provider rides from The Alaska Mental Health Trust, and CARTS got a Congressional Job Access earmark from the Federal Transit Administration for $500,000 through the efforts of Senator Ted Stevens. Public Assistance agreed to provide part of the required match with a grant of $100,000, and CARTS was on its way.
CARTS established standards for operation to provide door-to-door trips, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The service area extended from Nikiski to Sterling to Kasilof, and included the cities of Kenai and Soldotna.
Rides began “rolling” in October 2000, after nearly two years of planning and preparation. An Operations Supervisor was hired and began taking calls and scheduling rides. During the first months, all trips were brokered under a Provider Agreement with Alaska Cab, the local taxi company that had been involved with the Public Transportation Task Force from the very beginning. In November, a Volunteer Coordinator was hired to complete the CARTS staff, a position that expanded quickly to Executive Assistant, with duties including administrative responsibilities and work on grants.
During the first year, CARTS developed office procedures, drug test policies and testing, service standards and volunteer driver handbooks, continued to apply for and secure grant funding, hired staff, and developed reliable reporting systems. Application was made to provide Medicaid approved transportation services and to negotiate an areawide rate for reimbursement. CARTS service area was split into thirteen zones, and punchcards were sold to riders in advance, at a cost of $2.50 per zone (the charge was reduced in January, 2001, to $2 per zone). All rides were scheduled the day before they were taken. By taking passenger information over the telephone and selling punchcards through the mail, no money was exchanged between the driver and the rider. The punchcard system worked surprisingly well and is still in use.
In March of 2001 a unique three-way exchange between Anchorage People Mover, Alaska Public Assistance, and CARTS resulted in the acquisition of two new 13-passenger vans. The vans had been garaged unused for two years in Anchorage. They were intended for transporting welfare to work recipients to jobs, and CARTS could put them to immediate use. By June of 2001, CARTS was delivering nearly 2000 rides a month, with over 800 of them to and from jobs. Funding was received from AKDOT under FTA 5311 Rural Transportation, Unocal awarded funding for kindergarten transport, the City of Soldotna paid for rental of meeting room space, the Kenai Peninsula Borough provided an operations grant, a second half-million dollar earmark was received from Congress, and during the second year FTA 5310 Elderly and Disabled funding was also awarded.
CARTS experienced astounding success in just one year, and was seen as the model for transportation services in rural areas throughout Alaska. The difficult decision was announced in July 2001 to postpone a fixed route shuttle bus system between Kenai and Soldotna. With widely dispersed populations, the trip data collected by CARTS clearly showed that such a service would do little to enhance rides already being delivered door-to-door. The Board of Directors decided to work to improve the current system of ride delivery, instead of letting it grow too fast and taking the financial risk involved in running a new fixed route system. It seemed wise to delay a fixed route until it was strongly supported by local municipalities.
The fleet of vehicles was expanded in August of 2001, with the addition of two wheelchair-accessible minivans. By this time, the staff included three full-time operations positions and five part-time drivers. The offices on Kalifornsky Beach Road previously housed a school bus business, and the buildings turned out to be an ideal location that allowed for growth, and included garage space for all the CARTS vehicles.
The brokerage model developed by CARTS is a work in progress. The system depends on flexibility from passengers and staff as procedures evolve. Riders are subject to a 15-minute before and 15-minute after pickup window, and it took time to adjust on-demand expectations to the reality of sharing rides with others. Daycare locations are as widespread as the remote residential locations in this rural community. CARTS delivered every ride requested, but the vehicle at the door may be an agency van, a volunteer vehicle, or a taxi. Safety and Customer Service are the foremost concerns, while Freedom and Mobility are the rewards!