Public transportation can be a tough sell in a place known for its rugged individualism. But the Central Area Rural Transit System, CARTS, is working on a new strategic plan to make it easier for those who do depend on public transit to get a ride.
CARTS held a series of public input meetings recently, and some trends are starting to emerge that could make it into a new operating plan. To help get that feedback, a team from AMMA Transit Planning in California was in town. Selena Barlow does marketing for AMMA. She says whatever new plan comes to fruition, there will be trade offs. It’s just the nature of a relatively unpopulated area where people and places are spread out.
“For example, one of the big trade offs people talk about a lot is door to door service versus some kind of a bus stop-type service. The geography of this area, the density, doesn’t really support fixed-route buses. But we’re looking at some sort of interim options. There are some possibilities where you might have a demand-response service but there might be a few key locations where you have bus stops where the bus comes every hour or two hours. There might just be one per town, the Safeway in Kenai, the Safeway in Soldotna and somewhere on Kalifornsky Beach Road. There might be just three key locations where you could go and catch a bus and travel without having a reservation.”
That’s sort of a drawback to the current system. Reservations have to be made a day in advance and there’s a fairly wide window when riders can expect a bus to show up. That’s where technology comes in. Heather Menninger is the founder of AMMA Transit. She says even now, people are learning how CARTS and other systems are putting smartphones to use.
“You have a ticketless trip option, because you can call in with credit card information. A visitor tonight was just ebullient it. That was very important to her that she didn’t have to remember to take her punch card with her. Technology has been very much embraced here, with the tablets with the drivers, scheduling dispatching."
“There are automatic vehicle locators on all the vehicles so they know exactly where they are and that allows one of the things we’re working on as part of this project, is the possibility of having automated texts or calls, that would let someone know when the vehicle is, say, 10 minutes out. Right now you have a 30 minute window, it’s going to be there during this time, but to be able to know it’s coming now, it’s time to put on my coat. So we’re looking at things like that to make the rider experience better," Barlow said.
While technology may help fine tune some aspects of public transit on the Kenai, as with any rural system, local funding is the biggest piece of the puzzle. Local support for CARTS from the borough has all but vanished in recent years, going from $50,000 a year to $25,000 to nothing. That affects how the organization can leverage other funds from higher up the governmental food chain. Menninger says it’s also affected how many rides are taken.
“There’s a local and state share and then the largest share is that federal share, a little over 50 percent. What this is showing is when the borough and the city of Soldotna pulled back funding, what we lost was the match that allowed us to bring down federal money. So, you see a decline in trips related to a decline in funding.”
Most of that decline is on the weekends, when CARTS doesn’t operate anymore. That’s made it difficult for people who rely on the service to get to and from work, and working age adults make up the largest group of CARTS users.