Bus riders give their opinions on Capital Transit service

Posted: Wednesday, March 05, 2008

After hearing from consultants that the Juneau bus system could be more reliable, the city turned to residents this week for discussion and more input.

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

City planners at a public meeting Tuesday heard from riders such as John Roxburgh, who complained that buses sometimes go clockwise around Mendenhall Valley, and other times go counterclockwise.

"As a practical matter, it renders the schedules almost incomprehensible," Roxburgh said.

About 20 people met at the downtown library with city planners and Moore & Associates, consultants who studied whether buses were on time. Residents asked for holiday service, earlier or later hours, more informational signs on buses, faster service to the hospital, and more reliable service to North Douglas in the winter. Another meeting about the transit plan takes place tonight from 5-7 p.m. at the Douglas library.

The outreach is part of the city's efforts to update its transit development plan, which is intended to guide lawmakers and planners on how public transportation should be developed in Juneau.

Capital Transit, the city's bus system, runs three routes with a 16-vehicle fleet. Buses run from 6:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with more limited days for the express and Sunday buses. It costs about $5 million to operate each year; about 20 percent of that cost is recovered from fares.

The city also runs Care-A-Van, a free shuttle service for the disabled, which the consultants found to be nearly always on time.

Moore & Associates surveyed riders and non-riders about whether they liked the bus and how service could be improved. For instance, the survey found that riders thought the printed schedules were difficult to read.

Jim Moore, the founder of the group, pointed out inefficiencies with an informal policy of letting riders off when they flag the drivers.

"When you have those flag-stop situations, it makes transit more flexible," he said, "but it also makes it challenging to make it reliable."

The consultants came up with three scenarios for the transit plan.

In the basic scenario, which would not create additional costs, scheduling would be updated to reflect actual run times, but none of the routes would change.

In an intermediate scenario, consultants suggested adding service to Lena Cove and along Riverside Drive, and reducing the frequency of Back Loop Road service to hourly from half-hourly.

The hourly Lena Cove service would allow some linkage with the Alaska Marine Highway System, although consultants said ferries' "inherent lack of reliability" would always make it difficult for buses to connect with them.

The consultants' optimum scenario would do all that plus add half-hour service to the airport and go to Costco and Home Depot, among other changes.

That scenario would substantially change current routes. Various "circulator" buses, with short routes and numerous stops, would prowl areas such as Lemon Creek, downtown, Mendenhall Valley and Douglas. A "trunk line" bus would run back and forth between downtown and Mendenhall Valley and collect riders from the circulators.

More people would have to transfer, but the system as a whole would be more efficient, the consultants said.

Planners and consultants have not yet determined how much the changes might cost. They are still working on the scenarios.

Upon hearing of the suggested reduction of service to the Back Loop in the Valley, Juneau Assembly member Bob Doll said he wanted to make sure that cost efficiencies wouldn't outweigh all concerns.

"The person who lives out at the end of the road pays the same taxes as the guy that lives downtown," he said.

None of the scenarios called for eliminating any service, planner Ben Lyman assured the politician; some would just be less frequent.

Transit Superintendent John Kern, who runs Capital Transit, said one suggestion could be implemented immediately.

The consultants found that buses run on time 47.7 percent of the time overall. But they're much more often early than late. In fact, they often leave five minutes before the published time in the schedule, a practice called "running hot."

Moore said he was surprised there weren't more complaints.

"We've all adjusted," Kern said.

Juneau riders are used to arriving early for the bus. He said drivers could easily be asked to stay at a stop until the published time comes.

The majority of Juneau residents, 63 percent, drive to work. Eight percent walk. Just 4.5 percent of Juneau residents commute via the bus, according to the consultants. That's at least double the rate of Alaska as a whole. Most bus riders are commuters, and most have ridden for a while.

In a town this size, as a result, bus riders tend to get to know each other.

Tuesday around noon, people packed amiably into a bus heading downtown. The bus driver knew many of the passengers and welcomed them on. Most seemed largely satisfied with their service.

"Almost all the drivers are almost always nice," said Lynette Petteys, who rides at least 10 times a week. "We've got some pretty good drivers for these winter snow conditions."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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