Innovation, safety and accessibility helped Juneau's Capital Transit win a national award as the 2003 Community Transportation System of the Year.
The Community Transportation Association of America recognized Capital Transit at its meeting in Philadelphia last month as the best small transportation program in the nation.
It's the teamwork of managers, drivers and maintenance staff that makes the system work, said trainer/lead driver Marlene Love.
The award includes the Care-A-Van service for the elderly and disabled that is operated by Southeast Senior Services and partly funded by Capital Transit.
"It's a pretty prestigious award for a little town like Juneau to receive," said City Manager Rod Swope.
The city's nomination cites its free bus service to 585 people with mobility-related disabilities and people with disabilities who are participating in a training or rehabilitative program. It also cites the Care-a-Van program, which uses smaller vehicles. About 615 people have free passes for the Care-A-Van program and regular bus service.
In addition, the nomination noted the bus system's lower fees for youth and increased routes past the high school, put in place last year, to encourage young people to attend after-school and weekend activities. Monthly bus pass sales for youths soared from 200 to 450 a month, officials said.
A few years ago, a survey of high school students showed they wanted a frequency of after-school buses the school district couldn't afford to provide, said Joyce Kitka, the community schools supervisor.
"The half-hour service by the high school has really helped kids who are in after-school activities be able to stay and get home," she said.
The service is so affordable that the district provides city bus tokens to summer school students in middle and high school to get to and from classes, Kitka said.
The nomination for the award also said drivers have been trained in a code of conduct that includes customer service and how to deal with unruly passengers. A driver's safety committee developed the code.
"We've got some behavioral problems that bus drivers handle," Swope said. "They've done a pretty effective job dealing with them."
Drivers receive training in professional driving skills; working with customers who range from tourists to intoxicated people; examining buses for potential safety problems; and helping people with disabilities, said trainer/lead driver Love.
"We don't just sit back and steer the bus down the road," she said. The drivers "are ambassadors for our city. They're on the front line. They are the first people (visitors) see here."
The award nomination also said Capital Transit was in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act two years before the deadline. Some of its buses have been accessible to people in wheelchairs since 1992, and nearly all of them should be accessible by this fall, officials said.
The bus service has continued to grow as the community has grown, said bus driver Eileen Coté.
It implemented half-hour service two years ago and ridership has grown to more than a million rides a year. Fares pay for about a sixth of the roughly $3 million operating budget; the rest is subsidized by the city. Capital Transit employs 39 people, 29 of whom are drivers. It runs 14 buses.
"The drivers make the system work," Coté said. "We are a friendly transit system. The drivers communicate with people. We know their name. Without drivers who are responsive to the community, the system is not going to work well. We're not going to have ridership."
Care-A-Van makes about 2,400 trips a month, said Supervisor Dale Morris.
"We not only provide transportation to the elderly and people with disabilities, we do homemaker trips and refer them to people who can assist them with their needs," he said.
Trish Murphy, who works with elderly blind people for Southeast Alaska Independent Living, said they depend on Care-A-Van.
"It would be more difficult to get to the bus stop. Care-A-Van is their saving grace," Murphy said.
"Those drivers do an incredible job. ... The drivers are like gatekeepers. They know who might not be feeling too good and who to alert. That's above and beyond the call of duty, but you can depend on them to do that," she said.
Ellen Northup of the Juneau Senior Center said Care-A-Van brings many elderly people to its meal program. "I don't think we could run our food program without the Care-A-Van."
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.