Published in the Anchorage Daily News, May 9, 2009
Welcome, Mayor-elect Dan Sullivan. You will soon be dealing with a domino chain of fresh budget shortfalls and a citizenry upset about rising property taxes and also against a sales tax. But if you try to satisfy our tax-free fantasies, Mr. Mayor, I’m afraid you may be tempted to cut public transportation, either directly or by ignoring upkeep. I hope instead you will consider a forward-thinking approach and offer a real alternative to drivers and pedestrians.
Anchorage is approaching an economic brick wall of much greater significance than a single year’s budget shortfall. The state and the Municipality of Anchorage are both in the red. Federal infrastructure dollars will become scarce in the years ahead. We really should start thinking about where the money is going to come from to maintain and expand our infrastructure. We could reduce traffic with an excellent public transportation system, but we continue to embrace the dinosaur of fossil fuels.
Our lack of progress is costing us. According to the American Automobile Association, Americans spend an average of $7,823 annually to drive (not counting vehicle purchases), including fuel, insurance, registration, etc. With Anchorage’s huge municipal area, it is even more expensive to drive here.
It’s going to stay expensive, too, especially since the Assembly reinstated the now largely purposeless I/M testing requirement. If this group is really concerned about air quality, it should attempt to boost bus ridership, thereby curbing pollution. European governments, rather than coddling motorists, have invested in vastly superior public transit systems. They have reaped the rewards of cleaner air, less financial waste and less dependence on fossil fuels.
While some are content with the status quo, Alaska’s arrested development forcibly eliminates options for poor people, who are just about the only ones who ride city buses, since continual funding failure has made it everyone’s last resort. A one-way trip with transfer can take a quarter of a work day. Just try getting your errands done that way. Voters have occasionally approved increases in funding, but many of those who aren’t interested in riding the bus seem to laugh at the poor, a la Marie Antoinette: “Let them drive bumper cars.” Others are unaware of the state of our transit system.
People who can’t afford to drive are essentially crippled in the expanse of Anchorage. And even if we don’t care about them, it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out that without an adequate public transportation system, we’re going to see a heavier reliance on state and municipal public assistance programs for the unemployed and impoverished. We’re actually helping to perpetuate unemployment—it takes transportation to obtain a job and to get to and from work. Many jobs are inaccessible for bus riders because we decline to fund 24-hour routes.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about a great 21st-century city (Anchorage 2020 and so on). So why don’t we act like a major city and get a real public transportation system?
The need and inclination to ride the bus are there. A funding increase of 18 percent in 2000 precipitated an increase in ridership of 28 percent. Unfortunately, we’re back to starving the system even as we spend $200,000 per year advertising the same system. A recent $1 million cut by acting Mayor Matt Claman was partially reversed, but maintenance funds will still have to be used as operating funds to cover the reduction.
We’re not saving any money here. Even after all the municipal infrastructure bonds, parking garages, etc., we won’t be through paying for this foolishness, even if we’re willing to leave the poor entirely to their own devices. But that won’t happen either. Imagine politicians running for re-election on a “cut social services first” platform while we’re pulling human popsicles out of trailers in the middle of winter because they didn’t keep up in this hard world.
Mr. Mayor and Assembly members, please show some vision and make a real investment in the future by funding public transportation.