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Are Buses Better Without Borders?

Event will explore transit connections between counties

Local Motion | February 19, 2014 | By James Bruckbauer

Buses Without Borders


Click here to learn more about the event


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A bus ride from Beulah to Traverse City requires three different buses.

If you live near downtown Beulah, Mich., and want to ride a bus to your job in Traverse City—good luck.

Assuming buses are running on time, the trip requires a reservation in advance, two transfers, and nearly two hours to get to Traverse City.

At the halfway point at Ric’s Food Center in Interlochen, you have to step off a Benzie Bus and board a Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) bus, which them makes a few stops before reaching downtown Traverse City.

Driving between the two locations takes a little more than 30 minutes, according to Google Maps.

To be clear, I’m not bashing BATA or Benzie Bus. I’m asking them to keep improving. Both agencies are boosting service, always looking for ways to coordinate, and took a major step in the right direction in by working together on a transfer point in Interlochen that didn’t exist prior to 2011.

Now that Benzie County to Traverse City bus service is there, it might be a good time to evaluate, reassess, and adjust.

Is there a need for an express service that only stops in central downtown locations along US-31, doesn’t require riders to transfer buses twice, and only requires one bus pass that you can purchase anywhere?

I think so. In fact, the only way agencies will capture everyday commuters and tourists is by offering an efficient express bus service that connects the region’s cities and villages to Traverse City regardless of county lines.

Right now, though, those county lines are thick. Because the area’s bus agencies are funded to serve only their own residents in their own county, there’s little to no incentive to coordinate bus service across county lines. So the nearly 12,500 commuters that travel into Grand Traverse County every day for work have few options but to drive.

When faced with a similar challenge, transit agencies in northwest Oregon found a solution. They came up with a way to provide efficient express bus service that crosses county lines without requiring passengers to re-board another bus.

Transit agencies there formed a “regional transit alliance,” which is a formal collaboration between the counties but allows the agencies to maintain their own local brand, identity and service. The alliance can raise public and private dollars and is run by a board.

The alliance created the Northwest by Northwest Connector—a bus route that connects towns in rural Oregon, crosses county borders but doesn’t require a transfer. The funding for the service is shared between agencies, and riders can purchase passes for the connector through any of the transit agencies.

Bus riders in the Grand Traverse would benefit from a transit alliance in this region. For the last three years, local citizens and transit agency staff from Benzie, BATA, and Cadillac/Wexford have been meeting voluntarily to figure out the best ways to coordinate transit service across county lines. The meetings paved the way for a regional transfer station in Buckley and Interlochen, prompted a grant to hire consultants that are helping BATA dramatically improve service, and led the discussion on a new Traverse City connection to Williamsburg.  It’s also a good place that transit directors can keep each other in the loop.

But in order to create a solid plan for regional transit and in order to develop the agreements necessary to carry out cross-county transit service without transfer points, a loosely-formed group of volunteers is insufficient. A more formal structure, like an alliance, is needed.

A regional transit alliance could allow multiple transit agencies to share fares, develop cost-sharing structures for cross-county service, and raise public and private money to improve bus service.

Last year, a mobility management report was created for this region in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Smart Growth America, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and local transportation providers. The report outlines several ways our transportation providers could coordinate and improve service for commuters and visitors alike.

The report suggests that this region look closely at Oregon’s transit alliance

If you want to learn more the report and about the Northwest Oregon Transit Alliance, join us next week at Buses Without Borders regional transit event. Jay Flint, of NWOTA, will talk share his story and talk about what lessons could apply to this region.

The event will be held at the Hagerty Center in Traverse City from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and will also feature Michigan Department of Transportation Director, Kirk Steudle; Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City); and Smart Growth America’s Roger Millar.

Here’s the event page where you can learn more and RSVP.

James Bruckbauer is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at james@mlui.org.

1 Comment

3799 days ago, 10:52am | by Muriel Williams | Report Comment

You seem to understand the problems. Hope you can find a solution. With the growing senior population, the need will be greater. Also, older citizens would like to be able to attend things in TC and Interlochen in the evening, but the buses don't run at night. We would also love to have an express bus downstate.

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