Ferrying the cruise ships' crews

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2003

Cruise ship crew members come to Juneau from all parts of the world. So do the owners of the shuttle vans that ferry the crew between downtown and retail centers around town.

"Most of the owners, we come from different countries," said Pedro Romero, whose wife, Ligia Romero, has owned Crew Shuttle Express since the summer of 2001.

Ligia drives one of the company's vans seven days a week, and Pedro drives the company's second van on weekends.

"Two of us are from Nicaragua, four from the Philippines, one from Vietnam. Maybe that's the reason we are sensitive to the needs of foreign people," Pedro Romero said.

Nine vans, owned by three companies, spend most summer days between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. shuttling crew members around town, said Ligia Romero. The vans start at the end of the Mount Roberts Tramway parking lot near Taku Smokeries and head to Costco, Fred Meyer and the Nugget Mall.

Cruise ships visiting Juneau will bring an estimated 338,000 crew members here this year - a number Ligia Romero knows by heart. She relies on picking up an average of 20 of them every day in the tourist season to make her time worthwhile. Costs for operating the shuttle include about $3,500 annually in insurance and licensing fees.

"It's a hard business," Romero said. "But for me it's exciting. Every day is exciting."

Crew members don't spend as much locally as cruise ship passengers, but they do make a sizable contribution to Juneau's economy. A study in 2000 by the McDowell Group of Juneau on the economic impacts of the cruise ship industry in Southeast Alaska found that crew members spend about $20 each per visit in Juneau.

"They bring a lot of business to our warehouse, and we're happy to see them," said Greg Schatz, the warehouse manager at Costco, where crew members pay an additional 5 percent for their purchases to make up for the fact that they can't purchase a membership. Costco policy in Alaska dictates that only Alaska residents can purchase a membership to warehouses in the state.

Schatz estimates that crew members account for 5 percent to 8 percent of Costco's sales in the summer.

"They buy a lot of electronics, a lot of shampoo, soaps, Sony PlayStations, a little bit of snacks, some clothing - mostly underwear and socks - and vitamins," he said.

Crew shuttles operate with a city license and endorsement that costs $1,500 per season per company, said Sgt. Troy Wilson of the Juneau Police Department.

Shuttle services choose one of four endorsements: one to serve travelers at the Juneau Airport; another to serve the state ferry terminal; another to shuttle cruise ship crew members; or a fourth to transport shoppers and strollers downtown in a bus.

The system prohibits crew shuttles from soliciting passengers from anywhere but the shuttle staging area in the Mount Roberts Tramway parking area, Wilson said. It also means the shuttles have to follow a specific route from downtown to Costco, Fred Meyer and the Nugget Mall. They are not allowed to act as sightseeing tours for crew members.

Crew shuttle owners said they provide a service that can't be matched by any other transportation service in town.

"We are giving a good service to crew members," said Rauel Cordero, owner of Crew International Shuttle, which sends three vans on six to eight trips every day in the summer.

At $6 for a round-trip ticket, the shuttles are cheaper than taxis for an individual traveler, and are more convenient than the buses of Capital Transit.

"They don't go directly to Costco," Ligia Romero said of city buses.

Before the crew shuttles started making their runs in Juneau four or five years ago, Capital Transit buses suffered from minor overcrowding in the summer. Some of that may have been due to cruise ship crew members, said Doug Sorrell, lead driver with Capital Transit. The crowding has thinned in recent years, likely because the crew shuttles and bus system offer half-hour service, which began in May 2001.

A round-trip bus ticket to Fred Meyer from downtown would be $3 but wouldn't include stops at other retailers.

Taxis in town lost business after the shuttle companies moved into the transportation market, said Andrew Beattie, owner and operator of Capital Cab.

"We lost a market, but we lost it because of complacency," Beattie said. "Somebody saw a market, and they jumped on it."

In the mid-1990s, the crew shuttles benefited from a lack of regulation in their services, Beattie said. The city now has sufficient ordinances to control the industry.

But Beattie perceives some problem in enforcing the regulations. Some of the alleged violations come from crew shuttles picking up crew members in undesignated areas or carrying cruise ship passengers.

"When you start seeing passengers getting on with the crew, you start thinking enforcement, so you make a complaint," said Beattie.

He has not filed an official complaint against the crew shuttle companies.

When the police receive complaints against the crew shuttle companies, Wilson said, the department contacts the owners to let them know the complaint has been filed. To issue a citation, an officer has to witness the violation.

Wilson could not say how many complaints or citations against crew shuttle companies have been issued.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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