This photo shows a Capital Transit bus en route along Glacier Highway in the Mendenhall Valley in June of 2022. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)

This photo shows a Capital Transit bus en route along Glacier Highway in the Mendenhall Valley in June of 2022. (Jonson Kuhn / Juneau Empire file photo)

City looks at increasing buses between downtown and Mendenhall Glacier area during peak tourist season

Proposal would use marine passenger fees for extra buses after locals stranded at stops last year.

Boosting Capital Transit bus service between downtown and the Mendenhall Valley during tourism season, in the hope of avoiding overcrowding last year that left many locals stranded at bus stops, got an early nod of approval from Juneau Assembly members on Monday night.

The “tripper” buses, possibly funded with cruise ship passenger fees, would supplement existing service between the Downtown Transit Center and the stop closest to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, on Dredge Lake Road about 1.5 miles away. Large numbers of tourists last year opted to pay the one-way $2 city bus fare and walk rather than pay round-trip commercial bus fees of $45 or more — especially after the quota for commercial permits to the glacier sold out halfway through the season.

“I did ride the bus last summer because I wanted to check it out and it was really, really bad,” said Deputy Mayor Michelle Bonnet Hale during Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting. “The drivers felt horrible having to leave locals behind who were then missing their jobs and coming in late because they couldn’t catch a bus.”

The Assembly, following the season, asked city staff to evaluate options to improve public transit. Assembly members on Monday agreed to have staff draft a proposed tripper bus plan for consideration by the full Assembly to allow for public feedback.

In addition to tripper buses, also proposed was a “circulator” to increase bus service in the downtown area. But Assembly members expressed more reservations about that possibility largely due to concerns about competing with commercial operators such as pedicabs as well as free existing bus service some members said they weren’t aware of.

Tripper buses, which essentially trailed behind buses on the downtown-valley route during peak ridership periods, were used on a limited basis last year. Denise Koch, director of engineering and public works for the City and Borough of Juneau, told Assembly members the service could both expand and be promoted officially between May 1 and Oct. 1 if sufficient funds exist to effectively administer and operate tripper buses.

“We didn’t advertise that service (last year) because it was a little bit of a catch-as-one-can,” she said. The same would likely occur next summer if no passenger fees for the coming year are allocated, using leftover existing fees from the previous year.

“If we did not receive marine passenger fees this summer we would run into a pretty similar service to what we did during the summer of 2023,” she said. “If we receive marine passenger fees, as we’ve requested, we would formalize that service. We would run it more frequently, we would advertise it and it would probably be branded slightly differently. We’d call it the Mendenhall Express — or we can always, of course, change the name — but the concept would be it would start at the Downtown Transit Center and then it might just express right to Back Loop Road at that Dredge Lake stop.”

The return trip might include stops along Riverside Drive to benefit residents Koch said.

Mayor Beth Weldon asked if Capital Transit will be able to hire enough drivers for the extra buses, given employee shortages in recent years. Koch said there has been more success hiring workers lately since “we seem like we’re casting a wider net” and many of the new hires are from outside Juneau.

Another concern expressed by some Assembly members is if giving more prominence to the $2 city bus rides will simply mean more tourists packing the extra bus space, especially with private tour bus fees expected to rise. CBJ Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce said she expects commercial buses to remain fully booked during the coming summer.

“This city bus kind-of hack — as is presented on the blogs — is something that people know about, it will continue to happen,” she said. “And I don’t think that the prices charged by the glacier operators will really make any difference, because I think they’ll sell all their seats regardless because the demand is so high. So really we’re trying to solve the direct impact of people being left behind at bus stops. And letting the private businesses determine what the market can bear in terms of their pricing.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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