The brakes have been thrown on plans to improve Juneau’s public transportation system as the city continues to slash budgets to combat a multimillion-dollar deficit and grapples with objections from Capital Transit employees who do not approve of proposed changes.
The delay caused Assemblymembers to express frustration during a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night.
“I feel like I’m hitting my head against a concrete wall on this issue,” Assemblywoman Karen Crane said during the work session, noting this is the second plan they’ve had to throw out.
Four months ago, the city approved a new transit development plan to improve the reliability of bus service and to expand and restructure bus routes. The plan required an extra $200,000 for the Capital Transit budget to implement.
In May, however, the city reduced the department’s budget by 4 percent as part of citywide budget cuts. That means instead of increasing Capital Transit’s annual operating budget by $200,000, they have to reduce it by $100,000.
Tim Payne of consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, the company that developed the latest plan, explained it now must come up with a revised one in light of the budget reduction. He hopes to present one — which will surely come with trade-offs given the budgetary constraints — to the Assembly in the fall.
“We (have to) figure out the very best investment for the transit system that’s at the level that you have budgeted, that’s affordable for the city and borough and that we can operate and have it be reliable for the people who depend on that service,” he said. “And there are certainly going to be some trade-offs involved in that.”
The plan adopted in April of this year called for both short-term and long-term fixes to improve the bus system’s reliability. The bus schedules have not been updated in more than 20 years, despite the fact that traffic patterns have changed, traffic volume has increased and more traffic signals have been installed. The result is buses that do not run on time since it takes longer to get from Point A to Point B than it did two decades ago.
“It’s really important in terms of operating a reliable service that runs on time, service where people can make the connections that the schedule leads them to believe can be made, that we really rethink the whole structure of how much time is allowed in the system,” Payne said. “So that’s one of the refinements that we really need to make.”
The bus routes also need to be updated to serve the most ridership, he added. And now, instead of expanding service, the city will likely have to contract it. A memo released by the company and distributed at the meeting recommended discontinuing service to low-ridership areas, including Back Loop between Mint Way and the University of Alaska Southeast, past the post office in Douglas and around the downtown Douglas loop.
Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker expressed regret that the Assembly had to reduce Capital Transit’s budget, but pointed out that all reaches of city government are experiencing cuts.
“We have a budget shortfall and the only way to give you more money is to take it away from someone else, and I just don’t see how that solves the overall budget deficit,” he said.
The fact that the plan has to be reworked may be for the best. Capital Transit bus drivers called the proposed new transit structure “highly flawed” in a memo they submitted Monday. They proposed scrapping the plan from which they felt largely excluded.
“We are confident that we could produce a plan that incorporates the Riverside Drive corridor, addresses needs for extended hours and weekend express service, retains efficient transfers, and alleviates the unreasonable time constraint on most routes,” the memo states.
The employees could not make comments during the meeting because it was a work session.
Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis sternly asked City Manager Kim Kiefer why the bus drivers’ input was not heard earlier in the process, calling it a “dog and pony show.” Kiefer responded they only asked the drivers to evaluate the proposed changes once they were set in stone, which was at the end of last month.
“We’re coming to you telling you we’re working on getting it fixed within the budget that we currently have, with the input of the drivers,” she said.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote by Assemblywoman Karen Crane to Assemblywoman Mary Becker. It also incorrectly stated that Capital Transit employees asked the Assembly for permission to come up with a new plan on their own, based on ambiguous language in a memo that was written by Capital Transit employees and submitted to the city. Capital Transit employees meant that they wanted to work in collaboration with the city and the consulting firm to rework the plan. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.