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KMC fills medical gap in transit service halt

by Brian Walker
| December 31, 2010 8:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - Some help has arrived for those stranded by the sudden halt to transit services offered by the Kootenai Area Transit System or North Idaho Community Express.

Senior citizens and those with disabilities were the primary users of those subsidized services, but the general public, including students, also used the systems.

Kootenai Medical Center has agreed to provide free medical transport in the urban area of Coeur d'Alene-Post Falls-Hayden to those who formerly used the service until a permanent provider is found.

"KMC has graciously stepped up to the plate making sure that (medical) portion of the service is covered and uninterrupted," Kootenai County Commissioner Rick Currie said.

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

KMC has had a medical transport service, but is willing to temporarily pick up the void left by the halt to NICE/KATS. KMC officials said they don't know how many people will need a ride as a result of the halt to NICE/KATS.

Those who require transportation to medical services can call 666-2100 and a wheelchair-accessible vehicle will be dispatched to their home for free. The service becomes effective on Monday.

For complimentary non-medical transport service, riders can call 666-2930 to apply for the service for when a new provider is found. Generally, an applicant must be non-ambulatory to qualify, but other limited factors can also be considered. A doctor's confirmation is generally required by the Federal Transit Administration to qualify for free paratransit.

Currie said he hopes a new provider can be found in January. The commissioners oversee the urban service. Clif Warren, regional mobility manager for the Community Transportation Association of Idaho, is working with the commissioners on the urban side and is also charged with finding a rural transit solution.

The interim medical solution is for urban riders only. There are no interim solutions for rural routes in Bonner and Shoshone counties.

The last day for NICE routes was last Friday. The KATS runs ended on Thursday.

John Austin of the Panhandle Area Council, which administers the grant for the county that has provided the urban transit service for the past eight years, said NICE/KATS lost $180,000 in rural federal funding as a result of an audit.

When that funding stopped, so did the service, Austin said.

Austin did not know further details about the audit.

"Absent the rural funding, it was no longer a viable nonprofit," Austin said.

Specific questions about the NICE situation, including whether it's still in business, how many employees are affected, were referred to NICE during a Thursday press conference. NICE's website was not accessible on Thursday afternoon. A call to the company revealed a message stating that a voice mail had not been set up.

NICE Director Helen Stephens did not return a message that was left at the office on Wednesday.

The firm has existed more than 25 years, Currie said.

Officials were not optimistic that NICE would transfer paperwork allowing citizens to receive low-cost transit services to the new provider. Hence, the need to re-apply for non-medical transport services.

Citylink, which offers free transportation, is still operating throughout Kootenai County. However, it doesn't make stops at homes.

Most of those who used the KATS/NICE service paid $1 each way.

Vehicles in the NICE/KATS fleet, including recently-purchased, handicap-accessible buses, will be able to be used by the new provider since they were purchased with government funds.

NICE/KATS provided 3,000 rides per month in the Kootenai County urban area in 2009. It gave 3,000 rides for the entire year in Shoshone County in 2009 and 4,000 in Bonner County. Officials didn't know the number for Kootenai rural routes.

Students, including some attending Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy, are also affected by the stop in service. The school on Thursday sent a note to parents asking how many people were utilizing the service. White Tail Transportation has offered to provide transportation at a cost to be determined, school officials said.