A group of about 20 people took a short tour to the Mendenhall Glacier Tuesday morning. The tour was considerably different than most: The tour bus — not the glacier — was the center of attention.
It was the first glacier tour ever to be run on an electric bus, and it was the first electric bus ever to drive on Juneau roads.
“We live here, and we see how the glacier is changing due to climate change, so we felt a responsibility to do this,” said Dennis McDonnell, president of Alaska Coach Tours, speaking to the passengers who were invited on the ride.
McDonnell spent about $4,000 to get the 45-foot long coach bus from Seattle to Juneau for a test drive. The bus belongs to BYD Auto Co., Ltd., a Chinese battery company that has recently started building electric cars and buses. The bus typically only tours the continental U.S. as a marketing tool for the company.
“Spending $4,000 is a small price to pay to help foster a change here,” McDonnell said.
The Mendenhall Glacier is Juneau’s most popular tourist attraction; it sees some 450,000 visitors annually, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In the summertime, most of the tourists off the cruise ships take a tour bus to get there. It takes approximately 20-30 minues to get there from downtown and back.
During the smooth, quiet ride through the Mendenhall Valley, McDonnell emphasized the need for collaboration between tour companies and the City and Borough of Juneau to bring an electric bus to Juneau permanently.
“By working together, not thinking competitively, with the city of Juneau and other tour companies, we want to find a way to make it financially feasible to have electric buses. We need to find like-minded businesses that can work together to facilitate the cost,” he said to the 20 people aboard the bus. Some of the guests were other tour company owners, city leaders and elected state government officials, such as Rep. Sam Kito, D-Juneau.
The cost of an electric bus is high — really high. The bus in which everybody rode to the glacier costs $750,000.
According to BYD Sales Manager Justin Scalzi, that’s as cheap as they come. Other buses, comparable in size to many of those used by many of Juneau’s tour companies, cost about $850,000, he said.
Scalzi rode on the tour Tuesday. On the same day, he pitched the idea of the bus to the Juneau Economic Development Council. He did so two months ago, too.
$750,000 is far more than the average amount local tour companies, such as Alaska Coach Tours, typically spend on buses. McDonnell said they usually buy buses used for $30,000 to $50,000.
But he isn’t letting the high cost deter his efforts of making the tourism industry in Juneau more envionmentally friendly. He suggested setting up a rotation schedule or some other means of sharing the bus that tour companies, such as Gastineau Guiding and Allen Marine, could use if they decided to share the cost of an electric bus.
That idea resonated with Assembly member Kate Troll and Juneau Hydropower Managing Director Duff Mitchell, both whom were a part of Tuesday’s tour. After the tour, Troll and Mitchell both pitched a park-and-ride idea, which would enable the city to potentially help shoulder the cost.
“These buses are representative of a well-entrenched community value,” Mitchell said. “Now it’s just a matter of sitting down with people and working it out.”
Troll suggested that in the off-season when the tourists are gone, the city could loan the bus from the tour companies and use it in a park-and-ride program, which the city is already looking into, she said. It could transport people from a parking lot, such as the Mendenhall Mall, to downtown.
Although she doesn’t think the city has enough money in its coffers to help with the initial purchase of an electric tour bus, Troll said she is excited by the idea. For a number of years, she worked as a tour guide.
She said that she would lead tours to the glacier and tell tourists about how much it was receding only to load them onto a “diesel-burning bus” shortly thereafter.
“The irony never quite escaped me,” she said. “This finally connects the glacier, which is a symbol of climate change, with the solution.”
The bus will run two more tours, that are open to the public, today. Tickets cost $25 each, and the proceeds will go to Adventure Green, a tourism sustainability program. The first tour will depart from Centennial Hall at 2:45 p.m. The second will depart an hour later.