John Kern has seen a lot. From old Army hand-me-down buses to modern, wheelchair-accessible models; from just a few routes to service that spiders over most of the city and borough, a lot has changed in the 31 years he’s been at the wheel of Juneau’s Capital Transit — the little bus system that could.
After more than three decades in his position, 37 years total with the City and Borough of Juneau, Kern’s last day before retirement was Friday.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in the buses over the years,” Kern said Wednesday, showing off the inside of one of the newest buses in the city’s fleet of 18. Seven of the buses the city owns were built between 2009 and 2011, the newest models in the fleet. The two oldest were built in 2000, Kern said, and are up for replacement.
The Capital Transit buses of today have a split-level design that allows for easy ramp access in the front for wheelchair users, but accommodates the traditional engine and transmission in the back. The fleet became fully accessible in 2006.
Buses have changed a lot in 31 years. In the early ‘80s, “when we had such a ragtag fleet,” two of the six or seven buses were Army surplus.
“We started the whole system with used buses,” he said. “The U.S. Department of Defense had surplused (the buses) and we managed to pick them up.”
Capital Transit started service — between Juneau and Douglas — in 1970. Kern joined the department as its director in 1983, after six years as a city planner. One of his favorite memories came when he was putting in his very first funding request for new buses in the late 1980s. Kern had submitted a grant request to the federal transportation department.
The department commissioner “called me and told me he had just signed off on my grant,” Kern recalled. “He said it was the best money he ever spent.”
By now, Kern has been through three rounds of vehicle replacement, which happens every 12 to 15 years, he said, as well as six public transit system updates.
Keeping city buses as modern as possible — increasing ease of use and decreasing pollution — has always been important to Kern, he said. He notices tour buses spewing black smoke on Juneau roads.
“I used to cringe when that was one of my buses,” he said.
The same goes for the operation of the transit facility on Bentwood Place.
“One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of is ... we’re totally paperless,” Kern said. “For a small shop like ours, it’s quite advanced.”
The bus facility itself was a product of Kern’s leadership. The department moved into the Bentwood facility, near the Brotherhood Bridge, in 1985. Before that, it had been a tour bus company and was completely refurbished to become a city building. Up until then, all city buses were stored outside and exposed to the elements. Capital Transit even borrowed a tour bus during the winters in case one of its own wouldn’t start.
Establishing the transit facility, as well as installing new bus shelters in 1985, which brought a lot more ridership to the system, were endeavors where Kern’s project management background came in handy, he said. And before he moved to Juneau in 1976 at the age of 23 from Minnesota, he worked in a factory with machinery.
“I think that gave me a level of confidence,” he said. “I had a lot of energy and was looking forward to the challenge.”
Even so, “the first thing I had to learn was how to drive a bus,” he said, laughing.
Small additions and changes to routes and services over the years caused the Juneau bus system to grow and grow. Service to the Mendenhall Valley began in 1977 but didn’t really take off until 1982, when bus stops were installed there. In 1992, Sunday bus service began. In 2002, the bus system provided a million passenger trips.
“It was almost a succession of projects that all built on each other,” Kern said. “I really hadn’t thought we would grow as much as we have.”
The growing system earned two major awards in Kern’s time — his greatest accomplishments, he said.
In 1999, Capital Transit was named one of the 10 best small transit agencies in North America by METRO Magazine. He still has the issue on his bookshelf. In 2003, Capital Transit was named community transportation system of the year by the Community Transportation Association of America.
“Capital Transit came of age in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Kern said. “We were probably one of the most productive systems in the nation, based on ridership.”
That award brought national attention to Juneau’s bus system, and led to the city building the downtown transportation center in 2011.
But what’s next? Probably a Valley center, someday, Kern said.
“I think that’s the eventuality of transit in Juneau,” he said.
As for Kern’s future, retirement won’t stop him from running the roads. He’s heavily involved with marathon groups all over the country, and will use his free time to keep working toward his personal goal — running a marathon in each of the 50 states. He has 25 under his belt so far.
He said holding one position for so long has been a heck of a ride, and he’s proud of the improvements he’s made with the help of his staff, the city and a community that’s extremely supportive of public transit.
“You never intend to stay somewhere 31 years, but one thing kind of leads to another,” he said. “I always found something to do next.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at email@example.com.