Absence of taxi voucher program leaves some without rides

May 6, 2018

Jordan Michelle lives on West Hill, and she's had to cut down drastically on going into town.
Credit Renee Gross, KBBI News

It can be difficult for seniors and people with disabilities in rural communities to get around. For those on the southern Kenai Peninsula,  it isn’t getting any easier. A program that provided taxi vouchers ended in March due to lack of funding. While the loss of service may be temporary, the program’s absence has left about 100 southern peninsula residents without a ride.

Joy Zuke loves Homer.  She loves the mountains, the beach, and the summer days. She even gets a kick out of Safeway.

“So I get one of those carts, and I start put-putting around Safeway,” she said. “I meet the greatest people.  It’s just like ‘oh I like this!’”

But Zuke can’t drive herself to the store because she has heart and respiratory problems.

Up until this spring, she used the Independent Living Center’s taxi voucher program to get around. She paid $3 for a four-mile trip and $8 for a ride to Anchor Point or McNeil Canyon.

The program allowed Zuke to buy about 21 short-ride vouchers a month, but that number was cut in half last summer. The program stopped selling vouchers in March.

For Zuke, that meant cutting trips to the grocery store.

Living on limited income all of a sudden, you go up to $5 for one way—it’s like ah!” she said. “You start making choices. Do I buy groceries? Do I buy cabs? How do I get to these doctor appointments?

Zuke lives on about $500 a month, and she gets by spending her money frugally. Without the taxi voucher program, she feels stuck.

“They allowed me to be free,” she said.It didn't matter that I was not healthy, it mattered that I could still get around.”

Transportation hasn’t always been an issue for people like Zuke. Up until last year, there were two programs on the southern peninsula. The Independent Living Center and the Central Area Rural Transit System, known at CARTS, both offered discount vouchers.

About four years ago, they began housing their programs under one roof. The living center would sell its vouchers to seniors and those with disabilities, and it also sold CARTS vouchers.

Anybody could buy those vouchers. I bought them to go the airport,” said Independent Living Center Executive Director Joyanna Geisler

Geisler said both programs were competing for the same pool of funding.

That became a problem two years ago when the living center didn’t receive any money from the state Department of Transportation.

Last year, DOT told the living center it was “competing against a public transit system.” Geisler said DOT cut its grant funding in half as a result.

The partnership between the living center and CARTS came to an end last summer. CARTS also ended its voucher program, but the living center’s program survived until March.

Geisler hopes the program’s absence is only temporary. She said the living center applied for grant funds for the upcoming fiscal year.

Still, she said the program’s absence since this spring has been too long for some.

A lot of folks are unable to afford to live in Homer city limits and because housing costs are so high and people with disability income might be so low, they have to live outside the city limits further away from the town because it’s a cheaper to live,” she said.

Even for those that live within city limits or just outside of town, getting around can still be a challenge.

Jordan Michelle lives on the top of West Hill. Health and mobility issues prevent her from driving or walking down the hill into town.

Since the taxi voucher program ended, she’s had to get creative, finding a church that offers transportation, even tagging along with her landlord to get groceries.

But even with her all her ability to find rides, she said she’s still limited. Michelle said she’s cut down on the time she volunteers at places such as the food pantry and the auxiliary club. 

“So this past month I hung out a lot with my cats,” she said. “There's lots of things that I would love to attend, but I don't want to call on my friends too much because that's how you lose friends is by calling on them too much, you know.”

Michelle said she has worries about continuing to live without taxi services, but she hopes that will change soon.

The Independent Living Center said it will find out this month if it will receive funding and service could resume as soon as July.