The City of Bethel will apply for a state public transit grant after all, but there is the little problem of a missed deadline. The application was due at the Alaska Department of Transportation on December 17, but the city is still willing to take a shot at it.
Council member Fritz Charles put the action item back on Tuesday night’s meeting agenda in response to many calls of concern from the community that with no action, Bethel’s bus service would stop in June 2020. At its December meeting, the council chose not to direct the city to apply for the $300,000 grant, which required a city match of $80,000. Several people urged the council to apply for the grant anyway, including Tundra Women’s Coalition Executive Director Eileen Arnold.
“As the Executive Director of TWC [Tundra Women’s Coalition] we are huge users of the bus system, perhaps the largest one. I’d be interested to see a budget sometime; it’s really important for the people who are in our shelter,” Arnold said. “Like, we can’t drive them around all day long. We’ve got other programs to run and other emergencies to do, and also it’s a big empowerment thing for the women to learn how to use a transit system and take care of themselves that way.”
Arnold says that the same is likely true for many people in Bethel that can’t afford a cab ride, let alone a car, or lack the ability to walk long distances in subzero temperatures to get to where they need to go. People like lifelong Bethel resident Susan Charles, who’s taken the bus ever since it began running. Charles says that continued funding for the transit system makes sense, as does expanding it as Bethel continues to grow.
“We need to get to work, and go home for lunch, and whatever we need to do: go shopping, go to the Post Office. And the bus system provides that for us here in Bethel,” said Charles.
Charles came to the meeting to give public comment.
“I’m sure that there’d be more people here if they had a way to get here. They would’ve had to come here by cab or walk here,” Charles said. “And it’s very cold out tonight, so I’m sure we’d have many more people if we had that support.”
Councilmember Mitchell Forbes opposed applying, referring to the missed deadline and the required matching funds. Funding for the transit system was meant to be a partnership through multiple community organizations that have now fallen by the wayside, he added.
The action item passed in a five to one vote, with Forbes in opposition. If approved, the grant would give the city funds for a new bus, one part-time and one full-time driver, and a full-time transit manager.