Several public bus lines now serve various markets within the Mat Su Borough, but a new state mandate may force them to consolidate.
Public transportation in an area as spread out as the Matanuska Susitna Borough poses its challenges. Some of those challenges have been met with the help of non – profit transportation companies, like MatSu Community Transit, or MASCOT, that runs mini busses through remote neighborhoods. The Valley Mover line makes regular commuter runs from Wasilla to Anchorage, and Talkeetna’s tiny Sunshine Transit, operated by the Sunshine Health Clinic, provides wheels for patients and the elderly headed for doctor’s appointments or shopping in Wasilla and Anchorage. The services have one thing in common – they all depend on a state subsidy, and now that money may be drying up.
Naomi Nelson, Mascot executive director, says the state Department of Transportation wants to see cost savings, and has mandated a consolidation of transit services:
“The idea behind that is to reduce expenses and to put more busses on the road and provide better service.”
In a letter to the bus companies, DOT’s transit program manager said there would be no grant funding of any future transit expansion projects unless the bus companies merge. DOT wants an operational plan in place by next year. And a committee has been formed to come up with a plan so that the Mat Su bus systems can continue to get funding in the next grant cycle. Nelson says the committee needs to submit it’s plan by January of next year.
“That plan will outline more than just the merger. There’s community needs that need to be assessed. There’s a lot of work going into planning routes and services, including costing those out.”
The Mat Su bus lines share in a million dollar a year pot of money from the Federal Transit Administration that is passed through DOT. So far, the committee has decided that Sunshine Transit does not have to be a part of the merger, since it is essentially an arm of a health clinic.
A fourth bus line, operated by the Chickaloon Tribe, would be excluded, too, because it is paid for with tribal funds. That leaves MASCOT and Valley Mover to merge their administrations and staff. Valley Mover executive director Jennifer Tew says the merger plan is still uncertain.
“So we don’t know exactly how it’g going to pan out yet. But that’s the whole purpose, to bring more services to the Valley.”
Tew says her busline makes 15 round trips to Anchorage a day, keeping cars of the highway, and that the DOT funds are needed to help defray costs to consumers.
“Our fare cost is $7 one way, $10 round trip, but our cost per ride is about $12”.
The state money helps makes up the slack between fares and costs. Consolidation would mean the organizations would reduce administrative staff. Mascot’s Nelson says implementation of the plan is set for July of next year. Nelson says the trend toward consolidation is nationwide, but Mat Su is the first area in the state to be affected.