Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
Glacier Valley Transit began offering public transportation to Girdwood Nov. 17. The managing staff (clockwise) of Brett Bitner, Di Hiibner and Shelley Elliott stand in front of one two buses servicing the area. Two new buses are on the way.
By Ken Smith
Girdwood has always been a town without public transportation; absent of trains, local taxis, buses, or vans. That all changed on Nov. 17 when Glacier Valley Transit, owned and operated by parent company Cirque Property, which also owns Alyeska Resort, began offering around the clock bus service throughout the valley.
The idea for public transportation in Girdwood first surfaced about six years ago when Larry Daniels, who was the Mountain Manager for the resort at the time, spoke to the municipality about providing public transportation to the valley. However, the city determined that Girdwood did not have enough of a ridership base to justify that a People Mover bus be dedicated to service the area. Enter Alyeska Resort and its new owner John Byrne.
Byrne’s bought the resort December 2006 and immediately began touting the need for local public transportation. A staff was assembled soon after Byrne took over and research began and a federal grant was applied for to cover start-up costs.
A Transit Authority grant managed by the Department of Transportation for $223,838 was obtained and Glacier Valley Transit was on its way to acquiring two buses.
“It was quite the process that we had to go through to get the grant,” said co-manager Shelley Elliott, one of the three person full-time staff members overseeing Glacier Valley Transit. “It’s a rural grant for public transportation, and it is a grant that has to be applied for every year.”
Elliott is joined by Di Hiibner, Mountain Service Manager and Brett Bitner, Operations Manager. The three managers are in new territory, learning the business of public transportation as they go.
“We’re basically doing a budget month to month.” said Hiibner. “It’s a big guess as we try to figure out expenses this year. Next year we’ll have a better understanding.”
Two used buses were bought from the city for $5,000 a piece. They have a lot of miles on them, but there are two new vehicles on the way, which will allow the older buses to be used as back-up. The new buses are equipped with handicap lifts, as does the current fleet. The new buses also have destination signs, stop request chords, and fair boxes to collect the $1 fee it costs to ride the bus.
It’s admittedly a low fare, but Hiibner and her co-managers understood that the business of public transportation was not about making a profit, but to provide a much needed community service.
“We want to keep running late to be able to help everybody going out so they have an option to getting in their cars and getting a DUI,” Hiibner said.
“That’s why were operating seven days a weeks,” added Bitner. “That’s one of our biggest reasons for doing this, for local patrons of the bars and restaurants.”
It appears the buses have already fulfilled their mission. This past New Year’s Eve there were no arrests for DUI’s. Even Trooper Sgt. Bryan Barlow of the Girdwood Post, admitted that the new public transportation service was a factor in the absents of DUI arrests.
The number of riders for Glacier Valley Transit on New Year’s Eve was just under 1,000. The weekend average is 400 per bus per day. Ridership numbers drop off during the weekdays to about 150-200 per bus per day. The buses operate from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. with ten drivers, five full-time and five part-time, providing pick-up points at 27 bus stops around the valley.
And even though they don’t expect to make much money, Glacier Valley Transit is working towards paying its way through rider fees, grants and advertisements that are currently being sold inside the bus and soon will be offered on the outside of the bus.
But ridership is the key to its success, and so far the bus service has been well received by the public.
“We’re getting great response from long-time residents that are riding,” said Bitner. He said the average age of riders is between 20-30 years of age, but the goal is to expand to appeal to school students as well as seniors or people with a disability or injury.
Dial-A-Ride Transit (DIRT) is the marketing idea behind increasing ridership. With a 24-hour advance notice Glacier Valley Transit will pick riders up at their residence.
Currently there are only 20 monthly passes that have been sold, most of those purchases coming from resort employees, but for $25 per month, the pass is a bargain for anybody routinely riding the bus.
Glacier Valley Transit is content to focus on local service in Girdwood and has no plans to expand and offer rides to Anchorage. Hiibner said that a local company, Girdwood Shuttle, Tours and Transportation (locally owned by Bill Connell) provides that service.
However, for Girdwood residents, it appears the valley’s first public bus transportation will be around for the long-term.
“I would have to say that Cirque is pretty happy with the buses,” said Hiibner. “We’re just trying to increase ridership. Now that it’s going smoothly, the hard work of starting up the business is over. I haven’t heard talk about selling it.”
Bus schedules can be found at most local businesses in Girdwood or you can go to Glacier Valley Transit’s website to view the schedule: www.glaciervalleytransit.com. You can also call the DIRT line for information or a scheduled pick-up at 754-2547.