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Not so NICE for area bus users

by Brian Walker
| December 30, 2010 8:00 PM

Arleen Grose was stunned to learned that her main source of transportation will be cut after today.

The Hayden 75-year-old is among those affected by the sudden stoppage of the Kootenai Area Transit System (KATS) in urban Kootenai County and the North Idaho Community Express (NICE) in the rural areas of North Idaho, including Shoshone, Kootenai and Bonner counties.

"They may spend millions studying the sex life of the red ant, but don't care about seniors," said Grose, referring to funding woes for public transportation. "That's atrocious. I've relied on this bus for seven years.

"I'm in a wheelchair, and it's how I get out to have lunch with my friends."

NICE and KATS are the same company that operates under different names.

Clif Warren, District 1 mobility manager for the Community Transportation Association of Idaho, said the loss of local match money to obtain grant funding is the reason the services are being discontinued. The last day for NICE routes was Friday.

Warren, who is working with other local bus providers and county and state officials to restore the service under a different provider, referred specific questions on the NICE/KATS situation such as funding and the number of employees affected to NICE.

NICE/KATS Director Helen Stephens couldn't be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Warren said his goal is to have service restored by the end of January, but cautioned it may take longer since funding now has to be redirected.

"Right now I'm going in multiple directions, talking to different providers," he said. "I canceled my vacation this week to start the process as fast as I can. There is still funding available through Idaho and equipment. We just need to get things organized and find match money."

Warren said he realizes that the halt to the NICE and KATS services is an inconvenience and an added expense at a tough time in the middle of winter. The services are primarily used by seniors and those with disabilities, but are also open to the general public.

Warren said NICE and KATS gave 42,000 rides in Kootenai County in 2009. About 4,000 rides were given in Bonner County during that year and 3,000 in Shoshone County. He said about 80 Silver Valley residents used the NICE bus each week, but didn't know the number of Kootenai County residents.

Hayden 82-year-old Alberta Landy, who is blind, has used KATS for about nine years.

She has spent $1 each way for the service, which has picked her up at her door. Now, she and others are looking at having to spend anywhere from $7 to $20 each way for a trip if they use a cab or transportation provider that isn't subsidized.

"It feels like something has been taken out from underneath us," Landy said.

CityLink offers a free bus service, but does not pick up residents at their door. Grose said Kootenai Medical Center offers a free van for medical appointments, but seniors and those with disabilities who have used NICE/KATS are now stuck with higher prices if they want to go to the store or out to lunch.

"We realize it's a burden and that's why I'm working so hard to get subsidized transportation back," Warren said.

Warren said vehicles that were purchased about two months ago for NICE and KATS service will be able to be used by a new provider.

"The state and county own those buses, so they will be available to go back into service," Warren said.

Warren said between 14 and 20 vehicles will be able to be used under a new provider.

Heather Wheeler, CTAI executive director, said it's her understanding that it wasn't the state or county's decision to stop the service, but NICE's due to funding. The NICE website announced an emergency board meeting for last Thursday, but no information on discontinuing the service was mentioned.

The county has carried the contract with KATS. Commissioners referred questions to the Panhandle Area Council's John Austin, who couldn't be reached for comment. PAC administers transportation contracts for the county. The Idaho Transportation Department has carried the contract with NICE.

Wheeler said a local match of about 20 percent is generally needed to access 80 percent in federal funds to provide subsidized bus service. She said that, while she has heard local matches have become increasingly difficult to come by during the recession, this is the first time she has heard of a bus service being discontinued in the past 18 months.

"Statewide there's definitely a limited amount of local match money available for transportation providers to use," Wheeler said, adding that she's unaware of the specifics on the NICE funding loss. "There isn't a funding source such as a local option sales tax for transportation providers statewide, so local providers have to work with cities, counties or businesses to have public transportation in communities."

Nicole Nolan of the Hagadone News Network contributed to this report.

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