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City Council Noncommittal On Public Bus System For Unalaska

City of Unalaska

Creating a public bus system would boost Unalaska's economy — and help certain community groups become more mobile.

Those are the results of a transportation study conducted by the city's Planning Department, which analyzed traffic patterns and hosted two bus trialsover the last year.

Based on that data, Planning Director Bil Homka said public transit would benefit elders, kids, and teenagers without cars — along with seasonal workers who come by the thousands. 

"Conservatively, we assume that maybe 20 percent of the 8,500 people who don't have vehicles would use the bus," said Homka at Tuesday's City Council meeting. "So say about 1,600 people might help infuse cash into the economy by riding the bus."

Upon reaching their destination, Homka estimated the average rider would spend about $29 while shopping or using community amenities.

He said that would push $47,000 into the local economy each day, which would translate into $500,000 in city sales tax revenue each year.

As for funding startup costs, projected around $2 million, Homka said Unalaska has a variety of options — from federal grants to public-private partnerships.

"No one says the city has to operate it," he said. "It could be something where you'd work with local processors. Are they interested in contributing money? Could we get the buses shipped here at a reduced cost using some of our transportation agencies? Any other organization could run this system."

Despite those caveats, the City Council was concerned about butting heads with private business.

"We saw that issue arise when the City of Unalaska took on developing the port," said Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson. "It was a contentious issue — competing with the private sector."

Councilor James Fitch, however, said he's open to exploring partnerships. He mentioned Island Services, the bus operator for the Unalaska City School District.

"I think this deserves some more looking at," said Fitch. "If the people who run the school buses want to be involved, or other private enterprise, that would be more entertaining to me."

While councilors were reluctant to support a competitor to the island's cab companies, Homka said data indicates that many Unalaskans and visitors already skip taxis for a number of reasons.

"One may be cost, one may be scheduling, one may be perception of the service," said Homka. "One may just be: 'What am I going to do with my money that's hard-earned? And I'm stuck out here in a bunkhouse.'"

The council referred the transportation issue to City Manager Thomas E. Thomas, who said he might be interested in a more comprehensive study.

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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