Alaska Borough Rallies Community for Transit Equity

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: May 9, 2023

Matanuska-Susitna Borough, AK is a county covering an area the size of West Virginia with a population about the size of Boulder, CO. In the past decade, their population of residents age 65+ has almost doubled. This shift has created new challenges for this independent-minded community.

Before the Pandemic, Matanuska-Susitna Borough was awarded an $231,191 Integrated Mobility Innovation (IMI) grant to “implement a platform that centralizes dispatch, fleet management, call-taking and payment across providers.” In Matanuska-Susitna Borough, services like Lyft and Uber are rare. Residents who need to get to a doctor’s appointment or a grocery store often need to ask a friend for a ride.

Unlike the more urban city of Anchorage 45 minutes away, Matanuska-Susitna Borough has a legal designation similar to a county. In Alaska, boroughs not also considered municipalities do not have independent authority to establish transit activities using local tax revenue. They can, however, create transit programs using grants and foundation support.

“Our goal is for residents to be able to log into a site and book a ride,” explained Pam Graham, the Grants Coordinator and transit planner in Matanuska-Susitna Borough. 

The idea to create a centralized on-demand transit system started when an assembly member got a deal on busses that were being auctioned, with the vision of using them for commuters. Mat-Su Health Foundation, the charity arm of the regional hospital, matched a federal grant to fund use of the busses to transport patients to non-emergency medical appointments.

“We’re trying to increase our capabilities in the borough and create a healthy community here,” said Graham.

While the team is still developing the program, they look forward to going live with their centralized mobility management system on July 1.

Challenges (Potentially) Unique to the Last Frontier

When first building the centralized dispatch system in 2019, the Borough found that the software they initially purchased didn’t use maps that were accurate or current for the communities they serve. “Google and Bing only come up here every 5-6 years. It’s just not as up to date as they are in the lower 48,” said Graham. Further, several transit partners offer flag stops for someone standing on the side of the road, but their software program didn’t allow for that either.

Ultimately, the team switched mobility management software programs, and now uses a system that allows them to upload their own geographic information system (GIS) data. The new system also gives the central dispatch and users the ability to flag down busses.

Cost, however, continues to be a barrier. “There’s always an additional cost because we’re in Alaska,” said Graham. With limited local government funding sources, the community has historically relied on donations of retired vehicles from the lower 48 states for public transit services, including school busses.

Partnerships with Foundations and Nonprofits

Once a month on Fridays, Borough staff, elected officials, and representatives from the Mat-Su Health Foundation meet to continue working on the project. The stakeholders have successfully built a program for patients to be transported from the inside of a local senior center to the inside of a medical building for doctor’s visits. The team also works with a local tribal transit provider to get patients to and from medical clinics and groceries.

While the team values their partnerships with community organizations, they’ve found that some small local nonprofits don’t have enough staff to support centralized transit services. In some non-profit senior centers, Graham explained, are run by staff who do everything at the facility. “They’re the drivers, cook, maid,” said Graham.


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