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Wanted: Regional Wheels for Workers

Grand Vision sees buses that speed commutes, boost ridership

November 30, 2010 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Glenn Puit/MLUI
  Traverse City resident Bailey Hanson counts on BATA buses to get her to a better-paying job in Northport.

Part Three of a series

Bailey Hanson just graduated from high school and is trying to make it on her own. She commutes five days a week from Traverse City to her job in Northport.

Dion Slabic is a father of one who lives in rural Kalkaska County. He commutes five days a week to his job in Traverse City.

Both depend on public transit, not cars, to get them to and from work, yet their commuting experiences are starkly different.

Each weekday, Ms. Hanson, 18, walks from her home to the Bay Area Transit Authority bus station in downtown Traverse City, rides for an hour on a direct route to her job, gets to work and back on time and hassle free, and pays $6 for the round trip.

“It’s working for me,” Ms. Hanson said, adding that, if not for the bus system, “I'd probably have to find someplace in Traverse to work making less money than I do now.”

Mr. Slabic, 36, faces a far more arduous journey.

He, his son, and his fiancée live near Kalkaska, but the closest bus route into Traverse City, provided by the Kalkaska Public Transit Authority, is three miles from home. Getting to the bus can be a challenge, but there’s an even bigger problem: Two days a week there’s no bus to Traverse City.

So, on those days, Mr. Slabic pieces together a transit route of his own. First, at 6 a.m., he catches a ride from a car-commuting neighbor to Grand Traverse County, where he boards a BATA bus. That bus runs into Traverse City five days a week—not three—and gets him to his job at 7:45 a.m.

“It's about three hours,” Mr. Slabic said of the time he spends every workday navigating his way to and from Traverse.

The sharp contrast between Ms. Hanson’s and Mr. Slabic’s commutes highlight both the opportunities and difficulties workers have for getting around in the rural Grand Traverse region—and how hard it can be for those who don’t have a car for getting to work.

High Cost of Poor Public Transit
A lot of people in the region, even those with ready access to cars, say something is wrong with this picture. As the citizen-based, two-year Grand Vision project's workshops and surveys revealed, residents in the six counties surrounding Grand Traverse Bay strongly support building bus systems that are more commuter-friendly. In fact, surveys taken as part of the Grand Vision process, which came up with a 50-year growth plan for the region, revealed that a remarkable 80 percent of area residents favor public transit investment.

Not surprisingly, the surveys also revealed that the strongest support for quality transit comes from families that need it the most—families with household incomes of less than $50,000 a year.

The reason is easy to understand: Annual transportation costs are sky-high in this part of the state, where everything is far apart, almost everyone must rely on cars, and more than 11,000 people commute to Traverse City from outlying counties, where home and rental prices are cheaper.

Those transportation cost numbers are daunting: It costs families in the region an average of $11,540 a year to operate their cars, yet the median income for families in rural counties is $36,000 or less. That really makes a difference in places like Kalkaska County, where Mr. Slabic lives: More than half of his neighbors also work outside the county, and those personal mobility costs adds up to a tremendous drag on family incomes and on local economies, as car-strapped individuals are forced to cut spending on other products and services.

Indeed, providing affordable, reliable public transportation for northern Michigan families has become a very pressing issue. While many headlines regarding Michigan’s economic evisceration center on Detroit, the northern, rural portion of the state are being severely punished, too. Many families are suffering, as stunning increases in the demand for food pantry and other social services in the Grand Vision area demonstrate. Those six counties saw a 47 percent increase in demand for food assistance from 2008 to 2009.

Public transit can cut down on a significant chunk of a family’s transportation costs. The Grand Vision process—which engaged residents from Traverse City, Northport, Kalkaska, and dozens of other towns and villages in those counties—found that most people wanted more than the slow, point-to-point, reservation only, dial-a-ride service commonplace in the region and in most of Michigan’s rural counties. They want regular, faster, direct “fixed” routes that don’t hit a wall when they hit a county line.

Seeking Routes to Success
Efforts to translate this public support for transit—and moving regional public transit systems from dial-a-ride to fixed routes more friendly to working families—got underway this fall as a network of transportation organizations and community leaders came together as the Grand Vision Transportation Network, which is open to all.

The group is working to improve bus service region-wide via more and better-coordinated fixed routes. That would help workers like Mr. Slabic get to and from work, school, and other destinations reliably. It would also give them more time with their families, reduce the chaos in their lives, and, ultimately, provide a better shot at a more prosperous future.

Of the Grand Traverse region’s five county-based bus systems, BATA is by far the largest, providing 530,000 rides a year. It serves Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties with dial-a-ride, several in-town circulator routes that shuttle riders among Traverse City’s major institutional and commercial locations, and rural fixed routes, known as Village Connectors. The Connectors tie villages like Northport, Fife Lake, and Empire to each other and directly to Traverse City.

To the west, Benzie County’s transit system offers two services—countywide dial-a-ride, plus three express runs each weekday to BATA’s downtown station that feature timed stops, albeit with phone reservations required.

To the east, Kalkaska Public Transit offers countywide dial-a-ride, plus that express run Mr. Slabic takes to the BATA station three times a week. Antrim County offers door-to-door “health rides” to Traverse City twice a week, by phone reservation.

And to the south, the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority offers countywide dial-a-ride, and recently opened a transfer station in Buckley, where riders can hop onto the BATA system.

Dial-a-ride service is extremely valuable for seniors and others who simply cannot drive and do not have regular, nine-to-five jobs — essentially a multi-rider taxi service, not a regular scheduled bus route. But only fixed routes can provide the kind of service that Ms. Hanson enjoys and that Mr. Slabic clearly needs.

Five Days a Week
Kalkaska Public Transit Director Ron Kea said finding the balance between serving those who use dial-a-ride within his county and those who need fixed, tightly scheduled routes to Traverse City is challenging. He said that the three-day-a-week bus to Traverse City usually carries only a few riders.

That, he said, makes it hard for him to justify running the bus five days a week, although he said his agency is open to considering it. Meanwhile, KPTA is exploring more cooperation with regional colleagues, including a transfer station on the route to Traverse City, in the Acme area. But Mr. Kea still needs to be convinced that the demand is there for the route.

“If we had an interest...we would sure study it and see,” Mr. Kea said of establishing a five-day-a-week route.

A few years ago, Kalkaska Public Transit did have some success running a fixed, timed route to several manufacturing and industrial facilities in Traverse City. Layoffs sharply cut demand for those routes and so the agency suspended them.
However, there are a significant number of people in outlying counties who commute to and from Traverse City on a daily basis. For example, census numbers indicate more than 50 percent of Kalkaska County’s workforce works outside of Kalkaska County, and in the broader region, more than 11,000 people drive into Traverse City from the outlying counties to work.

Part of the challenge is educating commuters on the benefits of public transit compared to driving. And, Mr. Kea, for one, believes better marketing of public transit resources and routes could greatly benefit local transit agencies.

But others assert that it’s necessary to first have a truly attractive service before trying to market it. Odd times, inconsistent schedules, and circuitous routes—dial-a-ride or occasional fixed route runs—discourage transit use by everyone except those who absolutely have to use it.

Striking a Balance
Jim Moore works with people who absolutely have to use public transit. He’s the executive director of the Disability Network of Northern Michigan, located in downtown Traverse City. Mr. Moore, who worked on the successful campaign to win voter approval for Benzie’s relatively new county bus system, is quick to remind people of how crucial dial-a-ride is to many Northern Michigan residents.

Like Mr. Kea, he said finding a balance between dial-a-ride and fixed routes is very important, and urges bus systems to find ways to share routes and provide better commuter services without breaking their budgets or reducing services that seniors or those with disabilities count on.

“It’s an ongoing challenge to balance the resource limitations with what is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act...but the ADA is clear on the requirements for providing paratransit services for individuals with disabilities,” Mr. Moore said. “What we promote within the disability community is that if you are able to ride a fixed route, please do so. That is saving the transit agency important money that can be applied to greater needs.”

Fixed-route proponents say they agree. But, they argue, without significant improvements in fixed routes and better coordination between different bus systems, neither the disabled nor workday commuters—with or without ready access to cars—will get the service they need from public transit. Currently, many able-bodied riders who could walk, bike, or drive to a village bus stop still use dial-a-ride, essentially abusing the system.

Still others live in such rural areas that fixed routes will only work for them if they can be connected to the fixed routes with a series of rural “collector” or feeder buses.

That is one solution within reach for the Grand Vision Transportation Network. Some buses could operate like a dial-a-ride, requiring advanced reservations for a pickup and drop off along more efficient fixed routes. That could speed up service for people like Mr. Slabic: Since the dial-a-ride would only cover small distance—shuttling between homes and the closest fixed-route stop—it would be far more dependable, and passengers would know their exact destination arrival times.

Unraveling the knotty problems of coordinating different kinds of services—dial-a-ride, circulators, and fixed routes—and different bus agencies is daunting. But it could change how many people in northwest Lower Michigan get around, particularly those with jobs but not cars. For them, it would open up new employment, educational, service and shopping opportunities and cut down on their isolation and vehicle expenses. That should mean more chances for success, increased personal prosperity, and in the long run, more economic growth for the region.

That would be extremely valuable, according to John Fregonese, a leader of the Grand Vision process, which engaged about 15,000 residents in all. He sees a great opportunity for building a model rural transit system in the region that serves working and low-income families, which in turn benefits at risk children.

“In developing the Grand Vision, the public was very clear in their support for a modern, efficient transit system that connects people in cities and villages across the region,” Mr. Fregonese said. “If there is one regional public investment that can most directly influence future growth patterns, I think it will be an investment in a coordinated, efficient public transit system. And I believe that the Grand Traverse region is perfectly positioned to get this done.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist or the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Read Part One of Families on the Edge: Designing Communities that Work here. Part Two is here.

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