Chugiak bus riders aren’t taking route cuts sitting down

Friday, May 5, 2017 - 12:18
  • Star photo by Matt Tunseth The People Mover route 102 bus makes a stop in downtown Eagle River on Monday, April 24, 2017. Planned changes to Anchorage’s bus system will eliminate route 102 in October.

As the Anchorage Public Transportation Department prepares to slash Chugiak bus service later this year, several longtime local riders are still fighting to save it.

On April 20, riders took their appeal to the Chugiak Community Council, pleading their case to council members and a lone municipal transit planner.

“I am discouraged by the fact that you would disenfranchise all of Chugiak and Birchwood,” said Chugiak resident Jim Stouffer.

In March, he’d asked for the Chugiak council’s help opposing proposed cuts to the local bus route. Board members declined to take action at that meeting. On April 11, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Public Transportation Director Abul Hassan unveiled a new bus network featuring a small, commuter bus to Eagle River and no service to Chugiak. Nine days later, Stouffer returned to the basement of the Elsie Oberg Community Center to ask again for the Chugiak Community Council’s help.

Stouffer, who began taking the bus in 1987, attended the April meeting with Eagle River resident Sandra Simmons, who’s also been riding the bus for years. Collin Hodges, a Public Transportation planner, came to the meeting to answer questions and explain some of the 18-month process that led to the revamped bus system.

“Right now, we’re disenfranchising a lot of people by providing the lack of service that we are in certain parts of Anchorage,” he said. “We’re just spread too thin.”

Faced with declining ridership and revenues, the transit department had to decide between geographic coverage and route frequency, Hodges said. Ultimately, frequency prevailed: The new system features buses every 15 minutes in the heavily trafficked areas along Northern Lights Boulevard and DeBarr Road and through Mountain View and Spenard.

“We heard from people – this is what they want – and in order to do that, we have to make some sacrifices,” Hodges said.

“It might sound superfluous to provide 15-minute routes in certain areas while not providing any service in others, but when you look at the density in certain parts of Anchorage – the low-income population, the people without vehicles at all, and just the need for transit – that is much more present, in a much denser fashion in Anchorage.”

In Chugiak, he said, the density just isn’t there. The sparse population and distance from Anchorage combined to make Route 102 one of the more expensive, he said. When finances forced the municipality to rework the bus system, the Chugiak route was one of several to go.

Beginning this fall, the current route 102 buses will disappear, replaced by 13-seat buses traveling between downtown Anchorage and the Eagle River Transit Station, according to transit department officials.

North of Eagle River, Stouffer said, “We don’t have anything.”

Simmons said she was surprised by the transit department flyer she’d received in the mail earlier this month.

“Less waiting, more hours, better service,” read the flyer introducing the system changes.

“I’m waiting an hour now for a bus in the evening,” Simmons told the council. “So I don’t have less waiting; I don’t have better service.”

She asked Hodges to consider bringing one of the 13-seat buses up to Chugiak. Council officials asked him what kind of ridership increase would justify keeping a Chugiak route, if the department had considered various other options, and what kinds of changes lay in store for the future.

“It really depends on how people use the system, and what we continue to hear,” Hodges said. “And so that’s why I would emphasize that although the decision to launch this system has been made for October, the decision for the future iterations and service additions or changes absolutely have not, and the more we hear, the better.”

One option involved seeking what’s called Section 5311 funding through the Federal Transit Administration, Hodges said. The formula grants, intended to finance public transportation in rural areas, fund programs like the Valley Mover commuter route between Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

The conversation about the bus route changes lasted for nearly half of the two-hour council meeting. After the council moved on to other business, Stouffer sat and waited, all the way up until almost 9 p.m., when the council meeting started to draw to a close.

This time, when he asked board members to take action, they did, passing a resolution opposing the Chugiak bus service cuts.

Meanwhile, the new schedule is set to go into effect Oct. 23, according to the transit department.

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