I hear a lot about budget deficits in state and local government, but I don't hear many creative suggestions to reorganize the way public services are delivered.
Now, however, we do have at least one: a sensible proposal on the municipal level to consolidate services in Anchorage's venerable public transit system, the People Mover.
The plan isn't aimed so much at saving money — the same number of buses will operate, but it would make improvements for efficiency and make the system sustainable in the long run.
People Mover operates with a $32 million annual budget, about $18 million of this funded by the municipality, $6 million to $7 million from federal funds and the rest paid by riders.
Buses now operate regularly throughout the municipality, which is good. But on many routes at the extremity, like where I live in South Anchorage, there is very low ridership.
Take Bus 60, for example, which serves my neighborhood. I see it all the time, on the hour, on schedule, regular, dependable ––and typically empty. Bus 60 costs $2 million a year to operate, I'm told, and it really pains me to see it moving down Oceanview Drive with no one aboard.
There are parts of Anchorage where people depend more on People Mover and ridership is higher, mainly in East Anchorage, Midtown and downtown, but the hourly schedule is still roughly the same because the system's resources are spread thin across a big area.
The reorganization would reduce or eliminate services at the extremity, depending which option is decided, so that service can be concentrated on the higher-use corridors that connect downtown with the Midtown commercial and residential district and residential areas of East Anchorage.
Instead of hourlong waits buses would come at 15-minute or in some areas more frequent intervals. This has an important economic development aspect because it means people in those areas, many working in moderate-income service jobs, will be able to get to work and back more easily.
Paul Fuhs, who is active in the Fairview and East Anchorage business groups, says the lack of affordable housing downtown forces many people to live in Muldoon where costs are lower. More frequent public transit will expand job opportunities and help employers who need their people to be at work on time, Fuhs told me.
This isn't just a moderate-income issue, either. Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said many in the millennial generation, often with higher incomes, want public transit as a matter of principle. "Good public transit will make our city more attractive for younger people as a place to live and work, and for companies who employ these people," Popp told me.
One can easily see this in vibrant cities like Portland, Oregon, which has excellent public transit that adds to the attractiveness of the community for young people.
There's a connection between this and Portland's vibrant economy too.
Like Anchorage, Portland has a reputation for expensive housing and high living costs, but the city's efficient light rail and bus systems make it easy for people to commute to more affordable nearby neighborhoods.
If Anchorage wants to add to its luster for outdoor recreation, there's a connection to that too. I'll never forget getting off a plane in Salt Lake City and boarding a bus with my gear for the drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts.
Academic work bears out these relationships. The research is a little dated, but a 2011 study from the nonprofit Center for Transit-Orientated Development showed a link between growth in knowledge industries that employ professional, technical and scientific people within areas served by good transit systems.
It should be no surprise that employers in service industries supporting higher-income knowledge industries like food, accommodation, recreation and the arts show similar relationships to public transit.
This is the point that Bill Popp makes. If Anchorage wants to build on its higher-wage, more knowledge-based economy, more efficient public transit will help. It will also help diversify the local economy because improved transit will make office parks, commercial centers and recreation possible in dispersed locations.
Municipal transportation managers also say reorganization will allow the system to operate without the current "hub and spoke" system, which has given us the downtown hub on Sixth Avenue with a bit of a seedy reputation. With a more dispersed system, People Mover managers can plot where passengers make transfers and build smaller shelters there.
Back to Bus 60 in my neighborhood. As much as I see the efficiencies and common sense of consolidation, I do see people occasionally waiting for the bus in Oceanview.
There aren't many, but these folks really do need the People Mover. We just can't forget them. One solution is simply the scaled-down version of service being considered. Or, there might be more creative solutions.
In Kennewick and Richland, Washington, Ben Franklin Transit, the regional version of People Mover, has a deal with local taxi companies to shuttle people to stops on the main routes. The service is quite affordable — though subsidized like all public transit — and it is very popular, officials with Ben Franklin told me.
I don't know if something like this would be possible in Anchorage, but people in these small, largely rural communities in eastern Washington figured this out. Maybe we can too.
My point is that we shouldn't just wring our hands about the lousy fiscal situation our regional governments are in. We should get busy with solutions and not be afraid to think outside the box.
Tim Bradner is co-publisher of the Alaska Economic Report.
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