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Rural Employers See Need For Public Transit

Transportation to serve Benzie County workers

April 10, 2005 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Benzie's existing bus system targets people with disabilities, but local business owners support an expansion so that they can put people lacking dependable transportation to work.

BEULAH — Jim Mildren of Gogebic County knows buses. Public transit advocates, including several prominent businesses here in northern Michigan’s Benzie County, are paying close attention.

For a quarter century Mr.  Mildren has either been driving a bus or directing a bus system in Gogebic County, in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula. He’s heard all the conventional wisdom — that buses are for big cities not rural areas, that buses run empty all the time, that buses eat up tax dollars and drain the local economy. In his signature, mild-mannered style and distinctive “Yooper” accent, he chuckles at all the theories — because he knows they’re all flat wrong. And his constituents know it too: a hearty 77 percent of county voters in 2004 approved a property tax renewal to support Gogebic County Transit.

Proposed Benzie Bus System:

  • Dial-a-ride countywide
  • Express bus on U.S. 31
  • Hours: M-F, 6:30 a.m.-5p.m.
  • Estimated Fare: $2 per ride; $1 for seniors, people with disabilities.
“I like to say that if you’re a community trying to move forward, you need a good school system, a good library, and you need good infrastructure, especially public transportation,” said Mr. Mildren, manager of the Gogebic County bus system since 1989.  “I think our residents agree.”

Gogebic County operates a dial-a-ride bus system, where riders call ahead and are picked up and dropped off at the curb. Mr. Mildren readily acknowledges that the system, with five buses, cannot serve everybody’s needs across a massive county that stretches some 75 miles along the Wisconsin border and reaches up another 30 miles to Lake Superior. But the dial-a-ride service is seen as vital to the 34,000 people who rode it in 2004, principally for medical appointments or shopping, though 20 percent of the passengers also used the bus to get to work.

Benzie County residents have the chance to follow Gogebic County’s lead and allow residents to climb on board too after November, when voters will decide a property tax election to form a Benzie County bus system. It is not clear yet which way the vote will go. But given some similarities between Benzie and Gogebic counties, transit proponents assert that there’s reason for hope.

Benzie County’s modernizing economy
Both Benzie and Gogebic are rural counties with 17,000 residents, both straddle a Great Lake and are challenged by low wages, long commutes, and aging populations. But unlike Gogebic, Benzie County -- which had rested for decades in the sleepy comfort of an economy stirred by agriculture, recreation, timber, retirement and tourism -- awakened with a start in the 1990s. The county’s population surged 31 percent, the state’s second-fastest county growth rate. Influenced by the rise of Traverse City as an economic powerhouse just 30 miles to the northeast, as well as a wealth of forests, waters, and clean beaches at home, Benzie County is modernizing at a prodigious rate. New home building and business starts reached record levels. More than half of Benzie County’s employed residents commute out of the county for work each day, mostly to Traverse City, according to the U.S. Census.

Proposed Benzie Bus Budget:

  • Cost to acquire buses: Benzie County Council on Aging and Michigan Department of Transportation would supply buses; MDOT would replace them as needed.
    • MDOT-estimated $425,000 annual budget:
    • About half from property tax ($200,000) and fares ($20,000)
    •  About half from state ($162,000) and federal government ($42,000)
  • Property tax estimated 0.2-0.3 mils. The owner of a $150,000 home would pay up to $22.50 per year. That translates to less than $2 per month – less than a gallon of gas –or  6¢ per day.
Public transit advocates in Benzie County say such trends make a countywide bus system more practical than it’s ever been. Commuters could save time, combat the soaring cost of gasoline, and reduce stress by riding a bus to work, says Ingemar Johansson, a director at Benzie County Community Mental Health and a leader of the Benzie bus initiative.

Major employers argue that an efficient bus system would save them money as well. A top reason cited by employees for being late or absent, according to Crystal Mountain golf and ski resort, is the lack of reliable transportation. Missing employees, say executives, are expensive.

“We’ve calculated that an employee absent from work costs us more than if they had come to work and we had paid their wages and benefits directly,” said Gretchen Swanson, the human resources administrator for Crystal Mountain, which is based in Thompsonville and employs 250 year-round and 300 more seasonal workers, the largest workforce in Benzie County.

Ms. Swanson said Crystal Mountain based its calculation on the cost of overtime paid to another employee to cover the missed shift, the increased chance of a work-related injury as a result of fatigue by employees working extra hours, and lost opportunity costs in activities understaffed, closed, or canceled due to inadequate staffing levels. Additionally, Ms. Swanson estimated that an employee who quits or is fired because of excessive absenteeism costs her company $2,300 to replace because of expenses related to recruitment and training.

“We believe that a reliable Benzie bus system would allow us to connect with a more diverse pool of employees — and guests — and therefore is a smart investment,” Ms. Swanson told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.

Several other Benzie businesses have done the same math and also are endorsing the effort, including Field Crafts in Benzonia, Food for Thought in Honor, the Cabbage Shed in Elberta, the Honor Family Market in Honor, and Mary Weishaar & Co., an accounting firm in Beulah.

Presently, the Benzie County Council of Aging runs two or three dial-a-ride buses a day, serving 5,000 seniors and people with disabilities annually. But the agency turns down requests for rides almost daily because of a lack of resources. Benzie bus proponents are seeking to roughly double the number of dial-a-ride buses to about six and link it to a traditional, timed, “express” bus route already running between the regional hubs of Manistee and Traverse City — with new stops in Benzie County.

Transportation links people to jobs
The relationship between public transit and employment opportunity in rural Benzie County is much the same across Michigan and the nation, according to Jean Ruestman, northern transit supervisor for the Michigan Department of Transportation. “The top reasons nationally that people aren't working are a lack of transportation and a lack of day care. That's seen in multiple surveys,” said Ms. Ruestman.

Across the United States, just more than half of all public transportation trips are made to commute to work, while most of the rest are trips to school, shopping, medical appointments, and entertainment facilities, according to the American Public Transportation Association. It estimates that every $1 invested in public transportation projects generates $6 in local economic activity.

Those facts have spurred a greater effort by Michigan public transit agencies to make clear their value not only as a lifeline for people needing to get to the doctor or grocery store bus also to work, said Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, based in Lansing and representing the majority of the state’s 78 local bus systems. A 2004 survey of member bus agencies showed that, in rural areas, 10 percent to 30 percent of riders were headed to work, according to statistics supplied by MPTA, with as much as 50 percent work-bound in Sault Ste. Marie in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

"Public transportation systems launched in the last five years in the rural areas of Michigan have proven in a very short period of time their value as both a mobility option and an economic development tool," said Mr. Harder, a former state lawmaker.

Bus Ridership in Rural Michigan:
County Service-area Population Rides/Year Tax rate
Grand Traverse-Leelanau
MDOT estimate in start-up phase:

Shop local, attract state and federal funds
Back in the western U.P., Mr. Mildren said he has successfully made the case that not only does his transit agency require relatively little local tax money — about $115,000 a year — but that it’s an effective way to attract state and federal tax revenue that seem to rarely find their way back to Michigan’s rural locales.

“The Gogebic bus system is one of the few ways of getting our federal tax dollars back,” Mr. Mildren said. “When you’re talking about bringing those funds back, you’re also creating jobs.”

His bus system also has made a point of courting business support via a “shop local” campaign with advertisements in the area newspapers and special trips to downtown Ironwood and Hurley. The effort has been coordinated by the Ironwood Chamber of Commerce. According to Kim Kolesar, the chamber’s executive director, especially popular are rides to the Shop Local for Christmas promotion, part of the Jack Frost Festival, a month-long winter celebration ending in a live televised evening parade with 50 lighted floats.

“We think the Gogebic bus system is very successful every day. I always have people say how wonderful it is,” said Ms. Kolesar. “It helps employers and employees, schools, shops. I have never heard a negative word, ever. ”

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, is using his writing and planning skills to help make Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.
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