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Benzie Eyes A Ticket to Ride

As county grows, residents consider building a bus system

October 31, 2004 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jim Dulzo

A proposal for a new Benzie County bus system would provide dial-a-ride, timed local routes, and express service to Traverse City and Manistee.

BEULAH, Mich. — Thick forests, clear lakes, and sky-high sand dunes: It is no wonder that the Benzie Area Visitors Bureau calls this region “Northern Michigan Preserved.”

But here in Benzie County, residents increasingly find themselves caught between a desire to draw more tourists, newcomers, and economic activity to this splendid landscape and a longing to prevent population growth from trampling the very things that make life here special.

In mid-November, Benzie County leaders will unveil plans to respond, in part, to that growth: A countywide bus system with express service south to Manistee and east to Traverse City, and connecting routes to other Grand Traverse destinations and to Leelanau County. The proposed new system would represent a huge leap for local public transportation. Presently, Benzie has a poorly funded “dial-a-ride” service that concentrates exclusively on seniors and people with disabilities, cannot meet current demand, and travels only rarely to Traverse City.

Benzie's proposal comes a year after residents of Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties backed  a property tax millage increase that is enabling the regional Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) to expand bus service in both counties and build a new transfer center in downtown Traverse City.  Benzie's initiative would take full advantage of BATA’s drive for better transit service and, at the same time, provide a key piece of a successful growth strategy for their own area.

Like other residents of the Grand Traverse region, many Benzie County citizens recognize that local government must act to preserve the area’s beauty while embracing inevitable development. That growing recognition, and the fact that so many citizens and leaders are acting on it, last spring prompted the famed visionary architect and author William McDonough to label Grand Traverse a “touchstone region”— an area that the rest of the country looks to for leadership on growth issues.

In Grand Traverse County, for example, a coalition of citizens, outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists and environmentalists this summer — after about a decade of effort — persuaded the road commission to suspend its drive to build a four-lane highway and bridge through the scenic Boardman River valley south of Traverse City. The county, the local chamber of commerce, and several groups, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, are launching a community-based study meant to craft a vision of the region’s future growth and conservation and the best ways to enhance the transportation system to support that vision.

In neighboring Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, recent township and county elections swept away some officials who support sprawling development patterns.

In Benzie, a Strong Need for Transit
Supporters of a new Benzie bus system, which will require a public property tax vote for financing, point to evidence all across America that bus systems help residents stay independent and employed, strengthen community centers, cut traffic congestion, and lessen the need to widen roads. They add that building a convenient bus system would be particularly helpful to this region’s economy, environment, and social equity because of its unusual demographics. The county’s population grew 31 percent in the 1990s, the state’s second-fastest growth rate. And its residents are both older and have less household income than the state average, making them prime candidates for transit service.

A new Benzie County bus system would strive to serve people who cannot drive — the young, old, and those with a disability — as well as those who don’t own a car or who lack a second car in a two-job family, supporters say. Bus boosters say they envision the system expanding gradually over time to meet everyone’s needs.

“A reliable transportation system in Benzie would provide our citizens with options to get to employers, medical providers and other chosen destinations within our region,” said Ingemar Johansson, director of the county’s community mental health department and a longtime advocate for better bus service. “This would benefit the public in general but particularly the elderly, people with disabilities, and kids. People who live in Benzie and work or play in Traverse City would have options to get there as well. We live in the wealthiest nation on earth. Should we not be able to provide this for our citizens?”

There is some reason for Mr. Johansson to be hopeful. An April 2002 study conducted for Benzie County found that residents have a real interest in using “convenient and affordable” public transportation. In a mailed survey, 40 percent of respondents said they would consider using public transit and 60 percent said they would support a property tax millage for it. In July, responding to a request by bus system advocates, Benzie’s seven county commissioners voted unanimously to commit to putting a new property tax millage on the ballot next year, perhaps in August.

Personal Convenience and Economic Growth
Rena Fuller is ready to pay the tax and climb on board. The 91-year-old Benzie County resident already uses the very limited existing bus service for groceries, medical appointments, and a weekly visit to the local senior center to play bingo or cards, visit with friends, and enjoy lunch with others. She calls for a “dial-a-ride” bus one to two days in advance and schedules the ride early to ensure she makes her appointments.

Ms. Fuller lives alone outside Benzonia on a country lane set apart from the places she needs to go. She stopped driving about six years ago, when a seizure caused her to drive off the road and nearly into Lake Michigan’s Betsie Bay, in Frankfort. Her three daughters remain in the area and help her as much as possible. But everyone’s busy, and Ms. Fuller — who ran a cherry farm with her husband and also worked as a bookkeeper — still likes to do some things for herself.

“More buses would be fine with me because there’s a lot of us retirees in Benzie County,” Ms. Fuller said. “I’d certainly be willing to pay a property tax to support it. I hope others would too.”

Supporters say a Benzie bus system would provide more than personal convenience and independence for people who do not drive. Good public transportation strengthens communities by making in-town living more convenient and attractive — a basic way to combat sprawl. In addition, an effective Benzie bus system could, in time, help limit future road widenings by providing a congestion-fighting transportation choice. By encouraging more compact development, it would also lead to better open space conservation in a region that literally banks on its rural character.

A Benzie County bus system would help another group of people whose numbers are large in this part of the state too: Families needing two incomes but owning only one car. Nearly a third of Benzie County households have just one car, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, yet more than 50 percent of its workers must travel outside the county to work, many to Traverse City.

"People, basically, ride public transportation for one of two reasons: Either to make money or to spend money,” said Clark Harder, who directs the Michigan Public Transit Association. This helps to explain why the national transportation firm Cambridge Systematics found that public investment in transit tends to yield a three-fold return in private economic stimulus.

Benzie County Commissioner Mark Roper, who has worked with bus supporters for two years to document the need for increased service, says a new bus system’s top two priorities would be serving the growing senior population and getting people back and forth to work.

“With the economy the way it is today, you’re pulling employees in from a greater distance.

And with higher gasoline prices and car insurance rates, it just emphasizes the benefits of a bus system.” said Mr. Roper. He added: “We live in a community that people want to come to because of its beauty, because of its small towns, because of its neighborhood structure, and family nature. We want to keep the environment clean, the air clean, the open lands intact.”

A Partnership with the State
Although it’s known for being the “auto state” and home to the Motor City, Michigan does have a track record of providing at least some public transportation to rural places.

“Michigan has a 30-year history of supporting dial-a-ride-type bus systems in many of our rural counties and communities,” said Mr. Harder of the state transit association. “To the thousands of residents statewide who depend on mobility options, this service is every bit as important as those large bus and subway systems in American’s metro areas.”

From 1998 to 2000, Michigan supplied grant money to start up bus lines connecting adjoining rural counties. In fact, the “Regional Ride” program linked Benzie County to Traverse City during those years — a route that boasted northern Michigan’s highest ridership until the funding ran dry, according to John Drury, a northern Michigan public transit manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation. Benzie County transit advocates hope to recreate and expand the “Regional Ride” and combine it with roughly double the amount of dial-a-ride service that exists in their county today.

MDOT estimates that the proposed Benzie bus system would leverage approximately $150,000 in state, and $40,000 in federal, bus matching funds each year. County taxpayers and bus riders would have to supply the rest of the funding to cover the system's annual budget, estimated at $365,000. The Benzie bus proponents are considering fares of between $1 and $2 per trip and a new local property tax between 0.2 and 0.3 mils. This would cost the owner of a $150,000 home with a taxable value of $75,000 at most $22.50 a year — about six cents a day.

But even if the vote on a local transit millage succeeds next year, there is concern that state support for public transit is effectively slipping. State funding for operating local bus systems has of late remained relatively flat at about $160 million a year, but demand for those funds has grown significantly in cities big and small. Thus, as need for good bus systems grows, different areas are forced to battle for smaller pieces of the same-sized pie.

State Representative Dave Palsrok, a Republican from Manistee who represents Benzie County, is aware of the state transit budget strain. His district includes good-functioning bus systems in Mason, Manistee, and Leelanau Counties. In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Representative Palsrok suggested that a more unified political voice on the transit funding issue could either increase state support or at least shift more of it up north.

“A lot of transit dollars go to the heavily populated areas with political clout, especially Detroit,” said Mr. Palsrok. “One of the things that needs to be done — especially in this age of term limits — is that we need more leadership on this and other issues from the Northern Michigan delegation. ”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst, is working to make northwest Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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