Anchorage bus overhaul pushes frequency over breadth

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference unveiling the city’s new public transit plans (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Officials in Anchorage Tuesday unveiled a long-waited overhaul of the municipality’s public transportation system at a maintenance facility in midtown. It’s the first big redesign of the troubled bus system in nearly two decades. And planners are gearing up to spend the next six months preparing residents and visitors for major changes.

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Inside a cavernous maintenance shop filled with dusty buses awaiting repairs, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz stepped up to a wooden podium, flanked by colorful new transit maps.

“The reason why we have to have change is because the old model of providing public transportation wasn’t working the way it should have been,” Berkowitz said during remarks.

The administration cited declining ridership over the last 30 years as evidence of the system’s shortcomings. The administration spent the last 18 months working on a re-design that aims to draw in more riders.

Buses inside the city’s midtown maintanence facility (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

“If we could affect the kind of change that allowed us to serve more people better, we would attract more riders and be of greater community value,” Berkowitz said.

To accomplish that, the bus system is basically putting more resources in the places with the highest density of riders, and cutting back coverage in less populous, sprawling sections of town. The new plan includes routes that have fewer stops with more frequent buses, speeding up commutes.

Those tradeoffs and perks are the puzzle pieces that transit planners like Bart Rudolph are working with as they figure out how to improve bus service with a flat budget.

“Introducing high frequency transit in Anchorage has never been done, we’ve never talked about 15 minute frequency routes,” Rudolph said during an interview ahead of the press conference.

“If you live in an area that has a lot of these frequent routes you can survive without a car, and I don’t think you can say that with today’s system.”

Rudolph grew excited talking about some of the particular changes designed around riders’ needs, like more frequent, faster trips to the airport until 2 a.m. when the flurry of red-eye flights begin tapering off.

Posters of the new bus routes will be rolled out before the public in the next six months. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

But Rudolph has to be a booster for the overhaul, because during the next six months the city needs to essentially retrain thousands of bus riders before implementing the new system in October.

“We have quite a robust marketing campaign, it starts with blanketing our transit centers wit new signage, we’ll have new new route maps on the buses, we’ll have radio, TV ads,” Rudolph explained. “You’ll be hearing a lot from us.”

The funds for all that marketing and promotion come from federal dollars passed through the Anchorage Metropolitan Area Transportation Solutions committee.

John Weddleton is pleased with how the plan turned out, but has had concerns in the past. He’s an Assembly member representing South Anchorage, but owns a business across town in Spenard. Both of those areas are due for big service changes compared to what’s in place now.

Weddleton described the new strategy as emphasizing ridership above the size of the transit system’s coverage.

“That’s something they’ve been talking about for years, and now just making that happen,” Weddleton said.

Early drafts of the plan withdrew service from nearly all of Weddleton’s district, as well as outlying communities like Eagle River and Chugiak north of the Anchorage Bowl. But as planners met with community councils and collected more than 1,200 comments from the public, they reintroduced scaled down service to further flung parts of the city. And they’re pulling standard 40-foot buses off of small neighborhood streets, replacing them with 20-foot mini-buses — similar to the kind used for airport shuttles.

You can see maps of the new routes here.