Bus riders fight to keep local service

Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 15:03
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Sandra Simmons, left, and Linda Barnett ride People Mover’s Route 102 bus on March 10, 2017 in Anchorage. The women are part of a vocal group of Chugiak-Eagle River residents fighting to keep local bus service.
  • Arthur Brown studies a People Mover bus schedule at an Anchorage coffee shop March 11, 2017. To reach his job at an Anchorage Sam’s Club, Brown sometimes catches a bus more than five hours before his shift begins. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Sandra Simmons boards a morning bus at the Eagle River transit center March 11, 2017. Simmons is part of a vocal group of Chugiak-Eagle River residents fighting to keep local bus service. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • The Eagle River transit center on the morning of March 11, 2017. Proposed changes to the Anchorage public transportation system would eliminate regular bus services in Chugiak-Eagle River. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Linda Barnett is a dedicated bus rider.

So when the Eagle River woman learned the Municipality of Anchorage planned on eliminating bus service to Chugiak-Eagle River, she sprang into action, rallying her fellow riders to lobby on behalf of the endangered Route 102.

She distributed a petition, reached out to City Hall and requested the support of her local community councils. On March 8, she stood before the Eagle River Community Council to plead her case.

“My name is Linda Barnett, I live here in Eagle River and I’ve taken the bus to downtown for – can I say 20 years?” she began. “I’m here tonight to let the community know they’re taking away our bus system.”

Route 102 currently makes four inbound trips per day, five days per week, picking up the first passengers in Peters Creek before making its way through Birchwood, down to the Eagle River transit station, then onto the Glenn Highway for the final drive into Downtown Anchorage. Barnett, a financial analyst with ConocoPhillips, has traveled the route for nearly two decades.

The system overhaul has been in the works for about a year, slowly moving through a lengthy public process. Two concepts considered by the Anchorage Transit Department aim to increase ridership by refocusing resources on the system’s most popular routes, clustered around Downtown, Midtown and the UMed District. On both proposed new route maps, Route 102 is nowhere to be found.

Instead, Eagle River would be served by an abbreviated van service – a proposal that’s drawn vocal criticism from riders.

In meetings over the past several months, the Anchorage Transit Advisory Board weighed the issues. The municipal bus system faces declining ridership and bleak future budget prospects, according to transit department staff. Anchorage Public Transportation Director Abul Hassan said the impending route overhaul is the first such undertaking in about 30 years. In Chugiak-Eagle River, he said, the numbers called for a change.

“The ridership simply did not warrant a bigger bus,” he said.

Besides replacing full-size buses with 22-foot vans, he said, the route would shrink, no longer traveling all the way to Chugiak.

“If money was flush and we had additional demand, we would certainly do more,” Hassan said.

The van proposal would be sufficient to handle local demand, he said.

Riders disagree. The Chugiak-Eagle River area averages about 16.5 bus passengers per hour, according to transit department data. The 13-passenger vans could be modified to hold 16 riders at most, according to the municipality.

“There will be people left behind,” Barnett told a full room at the March 9 ERCC meeting.

She’d come with nearly half-a-dozen other riders, including friends she’d made over the years riding the bus together — the “Bus People,” she called them. They worked in health care and at major retailers and other businesses around Anchorage. Sandra Simmons, who said she met Burnett on the bus about five years ago, works in accounting at City Hall.

“People in town have other options,” she said. “All we have is one line.”

Together, they’d gathered more than 150 signatures from Route 102 riders who said they’d never been asked for input about the proposed cuts. Local community councils pledged letters of support for their cause. Burnett hoped the community backing would catch the eye of mayor Ethan Berkowitz. She wanted him to understand.

“Why are you disenfranchising Eagle River? Don’t forget us,” she said at the community council meeting. “You don’t want to piss us off.”

The next morning, Barnett and Simmons met up as usual inside the bright warmth of the Eagle River transit station, a compact shelter beside a parking lot off Business Boulevard. Their morning commute begins sometime around 6 a.m.

When Arthur Brown Sr. rides Route 102, his commute begins much earlier, with a quarter-mile walk to his bus stop in Peters Creek. Unlike Simmons and Barnett, he’s only an occasional rider, he said. He’s been catching the bus off and on for about 20 years.

“It used to be excellent service for everybody,” he said.

Now things are different.

Brown’s Sam’s Club maintenance shift doesn’t usually start until the afternoon, but the current Chugiak-Eagle River bus schedule pushes him to catch a ride into town up to six hours beforehand, he said. By the time he gets off work, the last of the five daily outbound buses is long gone, and he’ll catch a ride back home with his daughter or another family member.

Like other Chugiak-Eagle River bus patrons, Brown said he’s been frustrated by the public process leading up to the proposed route cuts. The monthly Anchorage Public Transit Advisory Board meetings usually take place at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. The last bus to Chugiak-Eagle River departs just 40 minutes later, making it difficult for Chugiak-Eagle River riders to attend meetings, Brown said.

If the bus disappears, Brown figures he’ll bum rides from his adult children until he’s able to get a car of his own. In years past, he said, he’s even found himself on the side of the road, trying to hail a ride with his thumb.

“Not a cool experience, but you do what you gotta do,” Brown said. “We’re Alaskans; we take the bull by the horns a lot of the times.”

Municipal officials have already picked a preferred new system plan, said Hassan, but as of March 13, the decision had yet to be revealed publicly. While a timeline has yet to be finalized, Hassan said the new system could be implemented this year.

“It’s a huge level of effort,” the transit director said.

If Route 102 disappears, Brown wonders how the other Chugiak-area riders will get to work. Living in Peters Creek, he said he can find a way to live without the bus.

“But there are so many other folks in so many different situations,” Brown said. “There’s gonna be problems.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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