Despite pleas from local users of the People Mover bus system to have coverage in the Chugiak area, it still remains left out of a new transit plan set to begin next fall.
On April 10 – the evening before the Public Transit Department released the final plan for a new People Mover route system – public transportation staff and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz met with Chugiak-Eagle River bus riders in a crowded Eagle River Boys and Girls Clubroom.
It was the fourth meeting People Mover held specifically with CER transit users since November.
The new bus system will no longer use the 40-foot buses to link Peter’s Creek and Eagle River with downtown Anchorage during peak hours. Instead, it will use a series of 22-foot van-style vehicles during peak. According to the plan being touted by municipal transportation planners, multiple vans will be used to account for overflow should one van fill up. Direct service north of the Eagle River Transit Center would be discontinued.
The new People Mover route system is scheduled to start on October 23, 2017.
A formal press release shared the new routes and fare system. The full release is available at //www.muni.org/departments/transit/peoplemover/Pages/transittalks.aspx
Municipal Director of Public Transportation Abul Hassan, gave an overview of the changes. Transit Planner Bart Rudolph shared information on the addition of Share-a-Ride to the CER area. The Share-a-Ride would supply a new SUV for four or five riders, with the department picking up the maintenance and the riders simply paying the monthly fees.
The current Share-a-Ride system only services riders from the Mat-Su Valley headed to Anchorage and JBER, bypassing the Chugiak Eagle River area. That program will change to include Eagle River as the transportation department begins a new vendor contract.
Randolph also said Anchor Rides would still be available for disabled residents who qualify.
While the riders in the room seem to have come to accept the new van process, one question still remains.
“Where does this address the people in Chugiak?” Bev Metcalf asked.
Metcalf’s family relies on one car to serve her family, including her parents who now live with them and her husband, Brad Metcalf, who works in Anchorage and has been riding the bus from Chugiak for years.
“Why can’t the van sitting there on stand-by, buzz out to Chugiak (a distance of approximately 5 miles) to get those folks who can’t get to Eagle River?” Metcalf suggested.
Several attendees repeated the question: What about the folks in Chugiak?
Hassan’s answer: “If we do that, it takes away from the frequency you have now,” he said.
Hassan recalled stories he had heard over the past few meetings, including Metcalf’s.
“I don’t want you to leave here thinking these stories didn’t matter to us,” Hassan said.
Hassan explained that public transportation is, “going through a motion of erosion over time.” He said the new system would help stop the erosion and help build the system up again.
This new system is “breaking from the mold and creating a system of value so I can come back to you in two years time and say we’ve had our return on investment and can start to add more [coverage.]” Hassan said.
“You have to be able to accept change to do,” he added.
Randolph said those interested in Share-a-Ride could submit information on the website or by calling the People Mover offices. The office will gather data and information regarding potential riders and people would be matched with riders along the same route. The cost for the Share-a-Ride program will range from $120 to $150 a month depending on the distance.
Resident Lorie Mills commented on the sharing service costing twice as much as a monthly pass.
“It’s obviously not going to work for everyone,” Hassan said.
He told the crowd that the department was willing to assist Share-a-Ride participants in working with employers to subsidize transportation costs.
“I work for the State,” Mills said, “and we are broke, busted and disgusted,” she finished, giving a moment of levity to the room.
Mills also comment on the more positive change of perceived attitude and tone coming from the staff compared to earlier meetings. Linda Barnett, who rides the bus downtown daily, thanked the staff for working with the group, acknowledging that it was not easy.
Hassan offered the group his personal phone number so he could look into any problems in facilitating the Share-a-Ride system in the area.
Berkowitz suggested the people in the room contact their state legislators to protect transportation funding and also suggested they reach out to their local Anchorage Assembly members, Amy Demboski and Fred Dyson, to take on the issue. The latter statement was met with a murmur of frustration.
“They’ve never come to these meetings,” Metcalf said. “Not once.”
“They’ve been invited, but they don’t come,” another woman in the back of the room said.
People in the room offered several suggestions including adding rate zones and increasing the fare to Anchorage to help fund the bus. Hassan explained that any fare changes must go through the assembly as part of the public process.
Lucas Veldhuis asked the staff to explain that public process to the room.
Before ending the meeting Hassan addressed the crowd.
“So am I hearing from this room that you would agree to forgo one bus in order to extend out to Peter’s Creek?” he asked.
The crowd agreed with nods and a series of affirmative comments.
“Yes, don’t forget Peter’s Creek,” a voice from the back corner chimed in.
Hassan promised to go back to his staff and look at the numbers.
At City Hall at the Public Transit Advisory Board Meeting
Three days later, the April 13 Public Transit Advisory Board (PTAB) meeting was also standing room only. The line of those in attendance stretched out to the hallway. As PTAB Chair Jed Smith opened the meeting, he offered empty seats at the front of the room and suggested children move up front.
This meeting was the final one with the Public Transportation staff before voting to support the revamp of the People Mover system.
Several of the people in the crowd were riders of Route 36 – one that is also scheduled to end in October. Its users were just as adamant as the users of the route currently serving the Chugiak-Eagle River area in asking how they will navigate the municipal transportation system come next fall.
Route 36 currently covers Downtown, Northern Lights west of Minnesota Drive, neighborhoods along Milky Way and Wisconsin, Spenard Road and along 36th Ave. to the U-Med District. Replacement routes will not cover the area West of Minnesota and no routes will cover 36th Ave.
In addition, new bus routes plans to remove lines that cover neighborhoods along Boniface, Baxter C Street, the Old Seward Hwy, Strawberry Road and Turpin.
With no microphones for public testimony or for the members of the PTAB Commission and staff, calls to speak up and frustration over volume added tension to the meeting.
A soft-spoken woman could not be heard by the Board from where she stood. She moved through the crowd of strollers, walkers and transit riders to stand closer to the front to speak and be heard, but at that point, could no longer be heard by the public in the back.
A suggestion from one of the last speakers asked that any spare funds be spent to add a microphone system to the room for public meetings.
One woman who shared she is disabled and whose name was difficult to hear without microphones, related that she will have to walk a half a mile more. Another person related that the new routes will cause her to walk further, but with the winter condition of the city sidewalks, she’ll be walking in the street as she already has to walk on top of sidewalks covered with tall piles of snow.
Smith shared that the maintenance department that deals with the sidewalks is trying to work out the winter difficulties and acknowledged that the walking routes were an issue.
Felix Rivera, a current member of PTAB and newly elected member to the Anchorage Assembly, said he feels the Board and staff did the best they could while designing the new system to cover the parts of town with the highest concentration of those who use the bus. The new route map still covers large target areas such as the Downtown, Mountain View, Ted Stevens International Airport, local hospitals, UAA and major retail hubs.
“I hope that the people who have been impacted will engage the Assembly in October as they go through Budget hearings and advocate for the transit system,” Rivera said.
He is stepping down from his position on PTAB as mandated by the rules of sitting Assembly members.
“I will continue to advocate for a growing transit system in Anchorage,” Rivera said. “I hope we can build the system to grow, but I think it will be in baby steps.”
Editor’ Note: Gretchen Wehmhoff is a member of the ECHO News team and a long-time resident of Chugiak. The next opportunity for the public to comment on the transit changes is at the Public Transportation Advisory Board meeting on Thurs., May 11, at 5:30 p.m. held in Room 155 at the Anchorage City Hall located at 632 W. 6th Ave. in Anchorage.