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City Pilots Public Bus Route As Council Seeks Airline Solution

Berett Wilber/KUCB

Between PenAir’s struggles and a new city bus proposal, transportation dominated the discussion at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

The Planning Department is piloting a bus route as part of its $5,000 transportation study.

Planning Director Bil Homka said the goal is to figure out how the city can help Unalaskans and visitors get around more easily.

“The cost of bringing vehicles to this island has gone up," he said. "Weather-related concerns [affect] everyone, including pedestrians, and there’s a large transient population working for the island’s industries.”

The city is offering free bus service Aug. 14-20 to gauge the feasibility of public transportation.

Between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., Homka said a city-owned 12-seater van will run from the spit to Unalaska Valley, with a swing down Captains Bay Road. There will be 17-25 stops, depending on the time of day.

Several city councilors praised the proposal, but Mayor Frank Kelty said he’s concerned about trespassing on cab companies’ turf. He asked Homka to send letters to the island’s 18 taxi businesses, so the owners aren’t surprised.

“It’ll probably save some political heat," said Kelty. "We don’t want City Hall stormed by the cab drivers, freaking out.”

The Planning Department has also installed eight temporary video cameras around the island to monitor traffic patterns. Homka said the cameras are already gathering data at the airport, the clinic, and other popular destinations.

When the transportation study is complete next year, the council will receive findings and decide how to proceed.

Meanwhile, city leaders are still trying to figure out how to respond to Unalaska’s unreliable air service. PenAir filed for bankruptcy protection on Sunday, as cancelations continue to disrupt flights between Anchorage and the island.

Councilor John Waldron suggested competition could improve service. He said Unalaska should consider partnering with the fish processing industry to develop an alternative airline.  

“I think the city should look into it with the canneries and find out if they want to form a co-op," he said. "That would send a clear message to Alaska Airlines and PenAir that if they don’t get their act together, the industry might be willing to step up and do it.”

While councilors mull their options, City Manager Dave Martinson has scheduled a sit-down next month with Alaska Airlines representatives in Seattle. He said he’ll use the long-awaited meeting to express Unalaskans’ frustrations with the carrier and its partnership with PenAir.

The City Council’s next meeting is Aug 22.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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