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Commuting Alaska

Valley riders see benefit of bus service

Every workday morning at 5:50, Rick Allen awakes in his Palmer home, takes care of his Jack Russell terrier and then grabs a $1 cup of fresh-roasted java during his 7 mile drive to a Trunk Road park-and-ride lot. Allen, director of Alaska’s Office of Public Advocacy, leaves his SUV and boards a 39-passenger Valley Mover bus at 7:20 a.m. for his commute to Anchorage. 

“I plug my headphones into my iPad and listen to music, bang out emails,” Allen said. “The time just zooms by.”

People throughout the state participate in the commuting ritual, with slight variations: some people can walk to work, while others must get there by air, ferry, bus, passenger van, car, motorcycle or bike. Alaskans who drive to work take less time to get there than the national average of 25.2 minutes, with the exception of Mat-Su commuters, who take an average of 33.6 minutes to get to work.

NEARLY HALF OF VALLEY WORKERS COMMUTE

An estimated 40 percent of the work force in Mat-Su commutes to Anchorage jobs. Many of those commuters, like Allen, are headed to Anchorage for their workday and the actual travel time is generally longer than the census indicates for the 40-mile trip.

The need for commuting options is critical in Mat-Su, which has a population of nearly 90,000 people and is the fastest-growing region in Alaska. Between the 2000 and 2010 census counts, Mat-Su’s population grew 42 percent.

Sixty-seven percent of Alaskans drive to work alone in their car, truck or van, according to statistics published in March 2011 by the Alaska Department of Labor. That number is higher in Mat-Su, where 70.1 percent of the commuters drive to work alone in a car, truck or van, and only 0.5 percent use public transportation.

LONG-TERM IDEAS

Over the years, officials and planners have concocted a variety of ideas aimed at sugaring the pill of that tedious, sometimes hazardous Valley-to-Anchorage commute. They’ve discussed and dismissed and rediscussed various prospects: offering light rail from Anchorage to Mat-Su, erecting a $4 billion dollar bridge connecting Point MacKenzie to Anchorage, running a 195-foot-long, 60-foot-wide twin-hulled steel-and-aluminum ice-breaking Navy prototype ferry back and forth across Knik Arm.

Light rail, so far, is still just an idea. The bridge remains controversial and unbuilt. The ferry exists but landings for it do not, and the Mat-Su Borough in November had not yet decided whether it would keep the dry-docked $78-million Susitna vessel, sell it, or sell it and lease it back to use for ferry service.

The borough was expected to take title to the vessel this month. It has been in Ketchikan, in the process of being certified with the Coast Guard and undergoing repairs to a ramp that lowers to let vehicles on and off the ferry. Massive-scale projects like the Knik bridge and light rail could take years, even decades, to solidify into real-world entities, said Mokie Tew, who created Valley Mover commuter bus service in February 2010.

Even when projects like these are finally realized, Tew said, it’s uncertain how much they will relieve the burden of commuting for the bulk of the people who live in the borough but have to get to work in Anchorage. The ferry, for instance, is anticipated to carry 20 vehicles and about 134 people. It’s also uncertain whether there are sufficient numbers of customers to cover costs associated with the ferry or the bridge.

SHORT-TERM SOLUTIONS

“What do we do for those years and how do we pay for those projects?” Tew said. “Right now we have a way to get to Anchorage economically, improve people’s quality of life, safely, in a way that doesn’t involve a white-knuckle drive. It’s right now, today. You can go right now and get on the bus.”

When Tew and his wife, Roberta, first launched the not-for-profit organization, their rehabilitated People Mover buses drove routes within Mat-Su, with one bus making the daily journey to and from Anchorage.

“I’d been doing business in the Valley for about 10 years and saw there were a lot of good people there working very hard but always broke,” said Tew, who works as a mechanic in addition to operating Valley Mover. “This is about working people who can’t quite get there (economically) because transportation is a huge expense.”

Tew wanted to help people get around throughout the Valley – with routes going everywhere between Willow and the Butte – but within three months decided he couldn’t afford to keep the buses going with that plan.

“I realized that although I couldn’t get enough people involved in the Valley itself, I did notice there were a lot of people getting on the bus to go to Anchorage,” Tew said. “I could keep this Anchorage route and it could be the seed to make the rest of this go.”

Valley Mover employs seven people, including bus drivers, mechanics, bus washers and administrative staff. Tew has received an $8,000 grant from the Mat-Su Health Foundation for Valley Mover, as well as a $340,000 federal Small Business Administration grant and a $15,000 grant from the borough.

Tew now serves on a recently formed committee that aims to talk once a month about transportation needs in the Valley. Representatives from the Mat-Su Borough, Chickaloon Village and Mat-Su Community Transit (MASCOT) are participating in that effort. MASCOT is a nonprofit that provides public transportation primarily within the borough. Chickaloon Village operates Chickaloon Area Transit System, which connects to MASCOT and Valley Mover transit systems. Another system, Alaska Share-A-Van, is a commuter option for Mat-Su residents needing a ride to and from Anchorage. It is a regional vanpool program established in December 2009 between Anchorage Share-A-Ride and the Mat-Su Borough.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” Tew said of the committee. “The borough is realizing transportation is a community thing.”

INCREASING RIDERSHIP

Three hundred people a month commuted from Wasilla to Anchorage via Valley Mover in its early days. Now, Valley Mover gives 300 rides a day. The buses make 10 trips a day, Monday through Friday, Tew said. An unlimited monthly pass costs $120 a month; a one-way ride costs $7 and a round-trip will set you back $10.

“A month of commuting with my SUV was $500 just in gas,” Rick Allen said. “That gives perspective on the amount of money you could be saving. It has a real impact on the bottom line for a lot of people.”

Allen and Tew both believe there’s a stigma associated with using public transportation in the Valley. Only 1.4 percent of Alaskans used public transportation between 2005-2009, according to Alaska Department of Labor statistics published in March 2011. Nationally, approximately 5 percent of the population uses public transportation.

“A lot of people believe they still have to drive a car back and forth,” Tew said. “When I first talked about doing this, people didn’t think Valley Mover would work here. Everyone was laughing at me.”

Allen has used light rail in Houston, Texas, and during his travels in other parts of the country. He knows about the ambitious and costly efforts to launch a ferry and construct a bridge across Knik Arm.

“In 20-30 years, maybe that will be where we go, but right now I feel like the bus folks are really taking care of business,” Allen said. “This bus? That’s what’s happening now.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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