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Sault Ste. Marie: Goin’ Up the Country, By Bus

For some users a pleasant choice; for most a basic necessity

February 17, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kimberli Bindschatel
  By Land Or Sea: Transportation options in the Sault Ste. Marie region include ships, cars, and buses, such as the city's Dial-A-Ride bus system, shown here.

A town of barely 16,000 people located in one of Michigan’s remote, unpopulated regions hardly seems a place that could offer even the most basic public transportation service. But Sault Ste. Marie has been doing just that for nearly 30 years. As a result of its collaboration with both the surrounding Chippewa and the adjacent Luce counties, the city’s Dial-A-Ride Transportation (DART) service completes a circuit that can get someone from the backwoods to the downtown and back again.

For those living in the country, it’s not exactly a convenient service: Nine buses cover the region’s sparsely settled rural routes. But for someone who either cannot drive or doesn’t own a car, Sault Ste. Marie’s DART and EUPTA, the counties’ Eastern Upper Peninsula Transit Authority, form vital lifelines.

State Representative Scott Shackleton (R-Sault Ste. Marie), former DART committee chair on the Sault Ste. Marie City Commission, says local transit “is an invaluable service to our elderly and disabled residents. Without local bus service, many residents would have no means by which to conduct their daily affairs.”

Stretching Out
Even in these budget-cutting times, the two transit agencies, which share a building, are expanding service. Additional funding from Project Zero, administered by the state’s Family Independence Agency, Michigan Works, and the Department of Transportation, allowed DART to recently add evening hours. It’s a part of the welfare-to-work effort introduced by former Governor John Engler aimed at those who want to work but don’t have cars.

Meanwhile DART is collaborating with Mackinac County to provide twice-a-day service from “the Soo” to St. Ignace. And citizens led by the Regional Interagency Coordinating Council, a local disability rights coalition, are working with DART, EUPTA, and Mackinac County to expand that service even further. They would like to add some more routes there and, ultimately, run buses south of the Mackinac Bridge to Petoskey and Cheboygan. This would make EUPTA, at least by area, the largest bus system in the state. Mackinac County commissioners are seeking state funding to study the idea.

Moving EUPTA from the bare basics to something more comprehensive for the entire eastern Upper Peninsula presents many challenges. The system currently operates in a region with just 55,000 people, roughly 1 percent of metro Detroit’s population, spread over an area that’s twice as large. Buses travel very long distances to pick up just one or two passengers. EUPTA also faces the unusual expense of offering ferry service to several islands near the Soo Locks.

The tax base to pay for these services is almost nonexistent; in fact, neither system has property millage support. But they continue to chug along. Between them they provide 100,000 rides a year. And while many people use a bus because they need to, growing numbers of people ride the bus because they want to. EUPTA’s Soo-to-Kinross shuttle, with its late-night service, is proving particularly popular.

Like the state’s other tiny, rural systems, EUPTA and DART depend heavily on state funding. Lansing covers just under half of EUPTA’s $471,000 budget and DART’s $297,000 budget. But while the federal government, not each county, serves as EUPTA’s next biggest funding source, the city of Sault Ste. Marie contributes almost one-third of the DART budget — $97,000.

Keeping in Touch
Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Tony Bosbous thinks his city’s support of DART is a good investment in the lives of people who otherwise might be cut off from every day life.

“Public transportation is important,” he said, “because it allows folks that don’t have transportation the option to get to the city’s retail district and doctors’ appointments.”

That rationale launched the city’s bus system in the early 1970s, sparked by a meeting between state officials and the Community Action Agency (CAA), which was part of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” program. The CAA still manages Sault Ste. Marie’s transit system; its basic goals remain unchanged.

Rural transit still has a long way to go in the eastern UP and across the state. While about two-thirds of Michigan’s transit providers operate in rural areas, giving nearly seven million rides per year and traveling over 25 million miles, there remain 34 Michigan counties with only limited public transportation services. These systems may not provide the dramatic economic stimulus or sprawl-busting potential of larger, urban systems, but those who cannot use a car because of poverty or disability see public transit as, in the words of State Rep. Shackleton, “a necessity for those who have no alternative.”


• Charles Moser (EUPTA), 906-632-2898,

• Ken Stott (DART), 906-632-3363,

• Rep. Scott Shackleton, 517-373-2629,

On Board: Many Happy Years Without A Car  >>

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