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Idaho Falls' new transit program, GIFT, serves 44,000 in six months - From The Post Register

The Greater Idaho Falls Transit service, which began offering rides in August, has reached its six-month mark and has completed double the number of rides as its predecessor’s annual ridership in only half the time.

“The GIFT program is exceeding all the expectations we had for it,” said Michelle Ziel-Dingman, Greater Idaho Falls Transit board chair and Idaho Falls city council president. “Customer service reviews have been positive and high, the drivers really care for the passengers, it’s affordable, the community has been overwhelmingly supportive and we are learning how and where to improve every day.”

The previous iteration of the service, Targhee Regional Public Transportation Authority, most commonly referred to as TRPTA, ceased services in April 2019 due to financial restrictions following a failed audit.

According to past transit records, at its pinnacle, TRPTA’s service delivered about 23,000 rides per year, managing six routes within Idaho Falls as well as regular trips to Rexburg and St. Anthony.

After only six months of service, GIFT drivers have given more than 44,000 rides.

“Numbers is one way you could measure the success we have had,” said Kade Marquez, Greater Idaho Falls Transit coordinator. “But I think a more important way is how many people in our municipality are getting rides to important doctor’s appointments that they couldn’t before, how many are making it to work for an affordable price so they can sustain their families, how many people are getting rides to grocery stores to feed their children, how is this affecting their lives.

“I think we would all agree that there are people who want to do all of these things and sometimes private services like Uber and Lyft don’t provide ADA accessible vehicles and fares can be upwards of $18 a ride.”

“We feel our service has been very successful. Our drivers are very busy … and while the quantitative ways of measuring success have been significant, we value everyone in our community and I have found that the qualitative ways mean and prove much more.”

After TRPTA ceased operations of the former fixed-route service, city of Idaho Falls officials received many requests for alternative public transportation options and began to act on those requests.

“They had not had transportation services for almost three years and that was really affecting the community negatively,” Marquez said. “For federal transportation funding, the way you qualify to continue services is by proving that we had been servicing people and meeting other key performance indicators. When there is not a service at all, you can’t prove those things. We had a special funding opportunity through a CARES Act grant that allowed the regional transit authority to partner with the city, allowing Idaho Falls to get 100% reimbursement for the two-year pilot program.”

The $4.2 million grant from the Federal Transportation Administration and the $140,000 approved by the Idaho Falls City Council cover all expenses for the pilot program.

The pilot program allows city officials to continue to test over the next year and a half to determine demand, users, funding options and service delivery obstacles.

“In the pilot project, you will see a lot of changes,” Marquez said. “We will adjust levels of service, potentially the price, policies and procedures, and that is all in design. The pilot is really like we are baking a cake without a recipe. We might have called a few people that know a few things and they might have told us that we need eggs, flower and this and that but the recipe is kind of obscure until you do some testing and we have two years to do that.”

A few months into the pilot program, Marquez saw a need to switch operational hours, giving riders more time in the evening and less at unused hours of the morning. Changes like this help officials better prepare for services after the pilot program has ended.

In addition, the grant gives the city time to set up the transit service, collect real data and qualify for traditional public transportation funding in the future.

In the meantime, service is a little different from traditional transportation services, which commonly offer set routes. GIFT is an on-demand door-to-door service that comes directly to a rider’s home, allowing pickup and drop-off anywhere within city limits at any time during operating hours, Monday-Friday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The rides might be a ride-share at times, meaning riders could be traveling with others for part of the trip.

“We don’t have buses running around town, that’s more of a long-term established, traditional transportation,” Marquez said. “That is a really expensive way to operate … In order to start, we are beginning small, and building when we know the best way to”

GIFT has seven vehicles, three of which are ADA accessible, meaning they are easy to approach, enter, operate and can be used safely and with dignity by a person with a disability. The other four are minivans.

“The first few weeks that I was at my job, I got calls from senior citizens that told me they hadn’t left their home in three months,” Marquez said. “Someone once told me there were weeks that they couldn’t afford groceries because they had to pay expensive Uber fares to go to their cardiologist appointments. I’ve heard just heart-wrenching stories, so I feel like we are providing a very important, essential service for people all over the community.”

As opposed to many other transportation services, GIFT offers a general low-cost fare of $3 per person per ride one way. The app and the phone line service will ask some basic questions to determine if any discounts are applicable for the ride. For individuals who qualify for a discounted rate based on the federal funding regulations, such as those 63 and older, veterans, or those on Medicare, one-way fare can be as little as $1 per ride.

Another unique feature of the service is that Marquez is the only actual transit employee with the city. All other services and drivers are contracted through a private third-party company, Downtowner, which largely manages day-to-day operations.

Marquez said that while he does expect ridership to grow in 2023 as the service becomes more efficient, making goals and setting numbers becomes difficult because service officials cannot predict when people will need to go somewhere.

“I know we will see benefits from smart changes we make but we are not in the stage of the pilot to be able to say, ‘if we do this, this will be the result’, we are more at the stage of, ‘if we do this, what will the result be?’, that is where we are.”

The transit service is expecting between 88,000 to 100,000 riders in 2023, its first full year of operation, Marquez said. But with outside influencing factors, officials feel that predicting the future is folly and they would rather focus on the quality of each ride the service provides.

Riders can schedule a ride through the smartphone app or over the phone, 208-999-4438. Download the app, “GIFT On-Demand”, from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, follow the in-app instructions and schedule your ride.

“We are really grateful for the rare opportunity of a 100% reimbursed grant,” Marquez said. “It was extremely smart of city officials to take that opportunity to see if public transportation could be reimplemented and made sustainable in the given period of time.” Original story:

ILEANA HUNTER | Jan 7, 2023

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