• New system would employ taxis, cut fare costs and provides opportunities to residents
By Alida Dunning
Feasibility didn’t pencil out to gain a bus service for Homer residents, but the town should see public transportation soon.
The Homer City Council passed a resolution Feb. 15 in support of reduced cab fares within Homer and the acquisition of two wheelchair-accessible vans to be available round the clock. The program is expected to be in place by June 2011.
According to Michael Neece, a member of the Homer Coordinated Transportation Committee, anyone will be able to buy tokens for cab rides within the Homer area for $3, instead of the going rate of $7. Committee member Kim Burrows said the boundaries of the area where the reduced fares apply include the end of the Spit, top of Westhill Road, Baycrest Shell Station, top of Easthill Road and Kachemak Gear Shed. Each token will be good for a cab ride to one destination. The program is expected to save money not just for Homer residents, but for several public-service agencies that currently provide cab vouchers for their clients.
The plan includes leasing a wheelchair-accessible van to each of the two local taxi companies. Patti Boily, also on the transportation committee, said the vans and the cab subsidies will be paid for with state and federal funds, and matching grants from local organizations who are currently spending money to provide cab vouchers for their clients. The Central Area Rural Transportation Services agency has access to the grants and will be guiding the implementation.
“They’re going to be all-wheel-drive ADA approved mini vans,” said Boily. “We have no accessible vans right now except through senior citizens and the hospital, so they’re only available during business hours. They’re not available at night or on the weekends.”
The cab companies will operate, maintain, insure, fuel and license the vehicles, and have them available on-call. “After a year or a certain amount of miles, the title will be released by the DOT and the companies would own them,” said Boily.
“With the new vans, people will be able to go out to dinner and do social activities on weekends or any time they want,” Burrows had said at the Council meeting.
The resolution states that Homer human service agencies are successful in purchasing services for their clientele from the local cab companies. Several agencies that use the current voucher system have voiced support of the program: Independent Living Center, South Peninsula Hospital, The Center, the Alaska Department of Labor, the Division of Vocational Rehab, Seldovia Village Tribe and Chugachmiut. “Right now they’re spending a lot of money on taxi service to their clients,” Boily said.
Neece said ideas for public transportation have been floating around Homer for years. “I was thinking about a bus system in the ‘80s. I was one of three hundred or four hundred people sitting on the spit working for Seward Fisheries with no car.” He said the idea of using cabs was like a light coming on.
“We kept changing ideas … trying to find a mechanism by which this could happen. Who’s going to step forward to run this thing? Nobody. So you run down the list and you end up with ‘Oh, cab companies work all the time.’ He said using the cab companies is a cost-effective way to fulfill the need for 24-hour van service from Anchor Point to McNeil Canyon.
“You’re not going to have to get somebody out of bed, pay them an hour this way, an hour that way, because the cab companies are always on call. That’s part of their job.” He pointed out that the cab companies will be covering the costs of maintaining the vehicles, and that they must adhere to rigorous safety standards required by the Department of Transportation. “You don’t have to build a whole new infrastructure for it, so there again, we save money. You can start to see the advantage to having a cab company do it versus setting up a whole new business. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to study this without a great cost to the city or any one of the agencies.”
Kachecab owner Chris Fisher urged the council to pass the resolution. “It is an unusual approach. But since we’re already doing this for the Independent Living Center and other organizations, we’re trying this, rather than buying a whole new system, and then trying to finance buying it. Cabs get a few more customers and people will save more money,” he said.
Cab owners don’t yet know if they will need to add new cabs to meet increased demand. “This is very experimental,” Neece said. “We’ll see, and we appreciate that the cab companies are willing to take that chance with us.”
The committee hopes to expand transportation services in the future. Neece talked about making McNeil Canyon a turnaround point for buses transporting kids to and from extracurricular activities. “Their parents wouldn’t have to make four trips into town. That’s a lot of money. It’s a work in progress.”
Neece said the City is still looking for outlets to sell the tokens. It’s expected that whoever sells them will receive one dollar per token, and for that reason it would be inappropriate for the cab companies to sell them, as some have suggested. “It’s federal funds and we have to account for everything. We’re hoping to use one or two established businesses, we’re hoping they’ll come forward.” Neece said it’s estimated 20,000 tokens might be sold in a year.
Josh Cooper, owner of Kostas Taxi, said the new programs will benefit a wide group of people, helping them get to college, grocery stores and any other Homer location.
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